When talking about ending the prohibition on Marijuana, it is almost impossible to wrap your head around the totality of problems and issues it touches. The externalities, long reaching negative effects, and indirect consequences create an enormous web that touches countless aspects of our society.

The amount that Marijuana prohibition costs us as a society can’t just be calculated based on lost tax revenue and the amount spent trying to police, prosecute, and incarcerate marijuana users and producers. There is the issue of lost wages and payroll taxes. Individuals who have been arrested for marijuana-related offenses can have trouble finding employment as a result. This can lead to extended unemployment or underemployment. Over a lifetime, this delayed start can add up to hundreds of thousands in lost tax revenue.

There is the damage done to the social contract and the public’s relationship with law enforcement when an illicit trade becomes a significant source of jobs and income in a community. Many of our rights have slowly been eroded in the name of the “war on drugs.” There are the many problems produced for our society that result in giving criminal enterprises a great source of revenues–revenues that can be used to bribe officials promoting a culture of corruption or funding the purchase of firearms for nefarious purposes. There is the side-effects on immigration into our country resulting from the power of the Mexican drug cartels.

There is also the indirect effect of what money we haven’t spent because limited state and local government resources end up going to keep marijuana illegal. Those funds could have been used to lower taxes or provide better services. How many students could afford to attend college, and go on to get higher degrees if the billions that could have be raised by tax cannabis were used to keep down tuition at public universities or provide for scholarships?

Destruction and danger in our national parks

For example, one of numerous, indirect, negative consequences of having cannabis be illegal is the increased danger and destruction to the pristine nature of national and state parks. Armed cartels have taken to growing large marijuana farms in national parks. From New York Times:

Mr. Heil [spokesman for the United States Forest Service] said drug operators could be blamed for a handful of wildfires each year in California, which is already dealing with a prolonged drought and budget-stretched firefighting resources. Environmental damage of a different kind can also be severe, with pesticides seeping into soil and streams, and trash and human waste left behind.

These clandestine operations can endanger people using the parks, and cleaning up the environmental destruction afterward can be very expensive. From a National Park Service new release:

They terrace hillsides, impound streams, introduce chemicals to pristine mountain water. “They don’t carry out their human waste or garbage,” [National Park Service Director Mary A.] Bomar said. “And they build and camouflage living quarters.” Bomar said park lands require millions of dollars of rehabilitation work – up to $15,000 per acre – and years to heal from damages growers can inflict in a single day.

This simply does not happen when things are legal

I don’t recall reading any stories about Jack Daniels running massive secret corn farms in the Great Smoky Mountains to make their mash. Charles Shaw is not destroying endangered plant species by using large amount of pesticides on illegal vineyard hidden in state forests. Samuel Adam’s Boston Beer Company is not sending armed gangs to ruin acres of Yellowstone by planting clandestine hops or getting into gun battles with Coors Brewery over the product. This does not happen in a legal and regulated market.

There is noticeable environmental, financial, and public safety damage done to our national and state parks directly as a result of cannabis being illegal. While it is unlikely to be an issue most people think about when debating possible legalization, it is a good example of a far reaching, interconnected web of negative consequences created by our current Marijuana policies. Allowing people to see the extent and nature of this web is critical to an informed debate about this issue.