We recently polled both our online audience and our email list to determine if people thought t FDL should get involved in the marijuana legalization ballot initiatives in California, Washington and Oregon. The support was overwhelming — 97% online and 92% from our email list.

Yes Percent No Percent
Online 2,741 97% 99 3%
Email List 35,872 92.4% 2,951 7.6%

We asked those who voted  “no” to tell us why. A few people objected because they said marijuana was addictive or carcinogenic. But the vast majority of the objections were along these lines:

  • “Of all the crap going on in the world this is at the bottom of priorities!”
  • “While I do support legalization…I do not think that this should be a FDL issue.”
  • “While I believe pot should be legal, I think this is an easy wedge issue for the Right. Like “in God we trust” and flag burning and even gay marriage, it’s a minor almost symbolic issue that effectively rallies moderates against the Left. I’ll vote for legal pot, but I’ll march for Wall St regulation, environmental controls.”
  • “While I believe it should be legalized, there is much important work to be done in the political arena and I fear that this issue would detract from the perceived seriousness of organizations who are doing that good work. Let’s stick to issues of broad concern to Americans, and not play into the hands of the forces who would marginalize us.”
  • “Weakens your credibility with people you hope to win over to our way of thinking. You will be painted as pot smoking druggies and your important message will get lost in that argument. There are more important and winnable battles to be fought.”

I think that these are fair concerns, but many are based on the internalization of a right wing narrative that took root during the culture wars.  Drug legalization was painted as the hedonistic concern of licentious, frivolous, post-smoking hippies, and outside the realm of consideration by serious people. For a variety of reasons I don’t think that’s true, and  these ballot initiatives offer a unique opportunity to explode many of those myths.

Legalization is not a frivolous issue.  Ronald Reagan began the war on drugs in 1982, and since 1984 the prision population in this country has quadrupled.  Reagan’s commitment to “privatization” made the prison industrial complex one of the most profitable growth industries of the 1990s, and the incarceration rate soared.  Clinton added to the problem by signing the Violent Crime Control and Enforcement Act of 1994, which mandated more severe minimum sentences and budgeted $30 billion in government contracts for private entrepreneurs seeking business opportunities.

Of all the reasons to legalize marijuana, there is none more powerful than the need to stop feeding the prison industrial complex with bodies because of nonviolent drug charges.  The United States has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners.  According to the FBI, someone is arrested every 18 seconds for a drug law violation.  Four-fifths of those are for possession only, and nearly half were for possession of marijuana.

African Americans make up 12% of the population but represent 44% of those serving time for drug offenses. In “Why Are So Many Blacks in Prison,” Demico Booth writes:

From 1985 to 1995, drug offenses accounted for 42% of the rise in the Black prison population, and as of 2002 accounted for well over 55%.  Over 80% of the overall increase in the federal prison population from ’85 to ’95 were due to drug convictions.  California  alone has twice more drug offenders in jail now than the entire number of people that were in prison in California for all crimes in 1978, which is the direct reason why the state holds more inmates in its jails and prisons than do France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore and the Netherlands combined.

The Prison Guard’s union (CCPOA) is the most politically powerful union in California, and they contributed over half of the $3.6 million spent to defeat sentencing reform in 2008. Jeralyn has written extensively about their power.  The overcrowding in California’s prisons means that overtime pay for guards skyrockets and many collect annual paychecks of over $100,000 a year.   It’s pure job security for them, masquerading as “tough on crime.”  But it means that tens of thousands of people wind up as bodies working for pennies a day for private companies that collect billions from the government for incarcerating them. It’s abjectly immoral.

And it’s also a huge tax drain.  The Marijuana Policy Project estimates that “marijuana would save $7.7 billion per year in government expenditure on enforcement of prohibition. $5.3 billion of this savings would accrue to state and local governments, while $2.4 billion would accrue to the federal government.”

Counter that with the $1.4 billion that taxing marijuana would raise for the state of California.  The state just laid off 23,000 teachers.  If you assume a $60,000 annual salary for teachers, that’s an annual total of $1.38 billion, about the same.

We’re going to have to make tough choices about our future in the wake of tough economic times.  Prison guards and prison profits, or basic public services that are being cut to the bone in the wake of state budget crises.  Our audience overwhelmingly believes that the Marijuana legalization initiatives are very important, and I think FDL can play a  role in helping people to understand what’s at stake, and push back against the false arguments being advanced to perpetuate a disfunctional status quo.