As Rhode Island lawmakers take a serious look at reforming our marijuana laws this legislative session, it is crucial that we keep in mind an important fact. Whether you love it or hate it, whether it is legal or illegal, people are going to buy, sell, and consume marijuana. The question is not whether we want marijuana in society or not. The choice we have to make is whether we are going to continue to allow criminals to control the market or if we are going to put marijuana behind the counters of licensed businesses that label their products, sell only to adults, and pay taxes.
After decades of arresting citizens for marijuana and spending tens of millions of dollars enforcing punitive marijuana laws, it is clear that efforts to eliminate marijuana use have totally failed. Just like alcohol prohibition, marijuana prohibition has not eradicated marijuana from society. Instead, prohibition has created a vacuum filled by criminals who turn a profit off of the illicit marijuana industry.
Illegal marijuana dealers have no regard for public health and safety. Because we cannot enforce product safety standards as we could in a regulated market, illegal dealers often peddle marijuana laced with dangerous drugs or toxic chemicals. Because business disputes cannot be settled in court, illegal dealers often settle their disagreements through violence, and our communities and law enforcement officers get caught in the crossfire.
By establishing a legal, regulated market for adults 21 and older, we can undercut the illicit marijuana industry with legitimate, taxpaying businesses. Colorado saw nearly $700 million in sales for legal marijuana last year, $700 million that might have otherwise gone into a violent criminal market. Eliminating the underground marijuana industry will not happen overnight, but just as Al Capone’s gangsters are no longer engaging in shootouts over turf because of alcohol, in time the illicit marijuana market will evaporate, as customers prefer a safer product in a safer setting.
Under our current policy of prohibition, profits from marijuana sales go into the pockets of criminals, leading to more crime, violence and guns on our streets. By regulating and taxing the production and sale of marijuana to adults 21 and older, we can redirect that money toward better uses, such as improving our schools and providing treatment to individuals who struggle with substance abuse.
To be sure, marijuana is not harmless, and we must communicate the potential risks of marijuana use to the public. That is why my proposed legislation requires the inclusion of mandatory safety inserts with every marijuana product sold, which would provide important health information about the potential risks of marijuana use and how to consume responsibly.
Although marijuana is not harmless, it is important to keep in mind that virtually every objective, scientific study has found marijuana to be far less harmful to the consumer and society than alcohol. While thousands of Americans die every year from alcohol poisoning, there has never been a single recorded case of a marijuana overdose death. Research published in the British Columbia’s Mental Health and Addictions Journal found the social costs of marijuana use are far lower than the costs associated with alcohol or tobacco use. We should be comforted by the fact that well-known leaders in the Rhode Island medical community, including Dr. James Crowley, former president of the Rhode Island Medical Society, Dr. Daniel Harrop, a licensed psychiatrist, and Dr. David Lewis, founder of Brown University’s Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, have all publicly expressed their support for ending prohibition and regulating the sale of marijuana to adults.
Marijuana prohibition is on the way out in America, and it’s no longer a question of if, but how and when. Rhode Island has already decided that our citizens should not be burdened with a criminal record simply for using marijuana, so it makes little sense to force those marijuana consumers into a dangerous criminal market. Massachusetts, Vermont and other New England states are very likely to pass laws to regulate and tax marijuana by the end of 2016.
We do not need to wait any longer to know that prohibition is the worst policy to have for marijuana. I urge my colleagues in the General Assembly to realize that the issue before them is not whether to have marijuana in society or not. The question is whether we are going to take control away from the illegal dealers and allow the state to regulate, control, and tax marijuana in a way that benefits us all.
By Democratic State Representative, Scott Slater from District 10, Providence, RI.