For the last four decades, the United States has engaged in a ‘War on Drugs,’ an effort to eliminate the distribution, sale and use of illegal drugs, including marijuana, both within and outside the United States. The ‘War on Drugs’, which started under President Nixon and continues under the Obama administration, has resulted in mass incarceration of American citizens for minor offenses such as marijuana possession. In 2009, police forces across America prosecuted over 850,000 individuals for possession or use of marijuana, according to the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report.
Organizations which monitor and critique enforcement of drug laws have sharply criticized US drug policy. The Global Commission on Drug Policy, in a recent report, stated that “the global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.”
According to Safer Choice, an organization that advocates for the legalization and regulation of marijuana, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 37,000 people die each year from alcohol use. In contrast, the CDC “does not even have a category for deaths caused by the use of marijuana.” Safer Choice also notes that alcohol use has been conclusively linked to various types of cancer, while marijuana use has not.
Despite the dangers of alcohol relative to marijuana, liquor remains legal while marijuana is banned under federal law. One possible explanation of the disparity between the treatments of these two substances is the political influence of various interest groups which benefit from federal drug policy, including the alcohol industry. According to Open Secrets, the alcohol industry, led by The National Beer Wholesalers Association, donated more than $5 million in campaign contributions to both Democrats and Republicans during the 2012 election cycle. According to Republic Report, alcohol companies have also donated to various groups around the country that opposed numerous state ballot initiatives to legalize marijuana.
Unlike the alcohol industry, groups who advocate for marijuana legalization do not have extensive funding for campaign contributions or lobbying. The largest political action committee (PAC) that supports marijuana legalization, the Marijuana Policy Project PAC, only contributed $17,000 to political campaigns in 2012.
The results of the recent election demonstrate that the views of many Americans on marijuana use are shifting significantly, with voters in both Colorado and Washington voting to legalize recreational marijuana use. Federal drug policy, however, continues to stand firmly against the legalization of marijuana, in part because of the political influence and campaign contributions of the alcohol industry.