The history of cannabis in the United States tells the story of how corruption, greed, and racism ultimately led to the federal government altogether prohibiting the plant. What is startlingly absent from that story is any scientific data showing that the substance is actually harmful. Fast forward to today, and we’re still living in a country where marijuana is federally illegal. While we’ve made some progress in that many states have legalized the plant, and many more will soon, the question remains: why is cannabis still illegal?
The powers-that-be would tell you that marijuana is dangerous and that they must take it off the streets to protect people. But numerous studies have shown that that’s not the case. In fact, it actually treats dozens of ailments. So if not for public safety, why is cannabis still illegal?
In short, cannabis is still illegal because some very powerful groups benefit from its prohibition. And you needn’t look further than who’s spending the most money to keep it that way to find out who the culprits are.
Marijuana Prohibition: Brought To You By Lobbyists
“Lobbying” is the attempt to exert influence on politicians and policymakers regarding a specific issue. This is performed most often through monetary campaign contributions and other such forms of legalized bribery. The more money a lobbyist has, the more influence they can buy. And unfortunately, there’s a lot of money to be made in keeping cannabis illegal.
Corrections And Law Enforcement
One of the biggest profiteers of marijuana prohibition is the prison industry. More inmates means more jobs for correctional officers and other correctional employees.
In the interest of maintaining the status-quo, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association gave a whopping $1 million to the political campaign that ultimately defeated Proposition 5 back in 2008. The legislation would have reduced parole sentencing for non-violent drug offenders and emphasized rehabilitation over incarceration. But because the prison can’t make money from rehabilitation, they fought the bill tooth and nail.
Even more prolific is the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. This labor union contributed more than $13 million to candidates, parties, and committees that were aligned with their interests in 2012. Among those interests is the continued prohibition of cannabis.
But government employees aren’t the only opponents of cannabis legalization. With the proliferation of private prisons, the people who run them stand to profit by keeping as many people behind bars as possible. That means that the thousands of people in prison for non-violent drug offenses translate to more money in their pockets.
So it’s no wonder that the two largest private prison operators spend a combined ~$1.5 million every year on lobbying. Without a doubt, thousands of those dollars go directly into fighting against the legalization movement for cannabis.
And, of course, police unions themselves have their hands in the pot as well – literally. Marijuana-related asset forfeitures comprise much of the police’s revenue. That means that without a justification for seizing marijuana, the police would lose out on a lot of money. To keep cannabis illegal, in part so that they can keep seizing it for profit, police unions spend a combined $540 thousand in lobbying efforts every year.
Competing Drugs: Alcohol And Pharmaceuticals
As the investment bank, Cowen and Company recently pointed out, the cannabis industry is only going to get bigger in the next few years. By 2026, they expect it to be worth $50 billion. And some of that money will come directly from alcohol’s current market share.
Knowing this, alcohol companies are always throwing money at keeping access to cannabis as restricted as possible. Amazingly, they spend at least $19.5 million every year lobbying. Of course, not all of that money is dedicated strictly to keeping marijuana inaccessible. Still, even a fraction of that goal is quite a chunk of change.
Marijuana is not only a serious competitor in the recreational drug market. Its potency as medication makes it formidable in the health sector as well. In fact, marijuana could literally replace many pharmaceutical drugs currently available. That’s why ‘Big Pharma’ is one of marijuana’s biggest opponents.
PhRMA, the Pharmaceutical Research, and Manufacturers of America, is the figurehead organization for the prescription drug lobby. Indeed, their contributions of $18 million of lobbying money in 2013 placed them as the ninth biggest lobbying groups in the entire country.
Howard Wooldridge, an anti-drug war lobbyist, is on the record confirming what many already suspected. PhRMA is one of his “biggest opponents” on Capitol Hill. No doubt, they’re invested in keeping marijuana illegal in the interest of maintaining their monopoly on the legal drug market.
The Final Hit
The question of cannabis’s legal status has little to do with anything other than profits. A few key players stand to gain massively from its prohibition. And in throwing around tens of millions of dollars, these forces have maintained an effective strategy in keeping access to cannabis very restricted.
Fortunately, the tide has been steadily turning against them. With nine more states voting to legalize marijuana soon, hope is high that their grip on marijuana prohibition will loosen further in the time to come.