Marijuana or cannabis is illegal under federal law. A significant number of arrests in the United States occur on charges of possession, sale or manufacture of marijuana. Despite stringent drug policies and punitive laws, marijuana use is common in the U.S.

A growing number of states have legalized the drug for recreational or medical use in recent years. The changing legal landscape has coincided with a dramatic increase in public support for legalization, which is favored by a majority of Americans.

According to a September 2019 Pew Research Center poll, two-thirds of Americans support marijuana legalization. This reflects a steady increase in public support over the past 10 years. Roughly 33 states and the District of Columbia have already legalized medical marijuana.

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In January of this year, Illinois began allowing the sale of marijuana for recreational use.

Eleven states and the District of Columbia have now legalized small amounts of cannabis for adult recreational use. About 60% of the Pew poll respondents supported legal marijuana for both recreational and medical purposes.

The federal prohibition on marijuana has had disastrous effects. Government statistics compiled in 2017 reveal a staggering litany of the failures. More people were arrested for marijuana possession than for murder, rape, aggravated assault and robbery combined. These arrests amount to one every minute. The costs associated with enforcement, like court costs, reach several billion dollars a year.

Then there is the issue of mass incarceration. The United States ranks as the world’s leading developed nation in jailing people for possessing or using marijuana.

Prohibition hurts the economy in terms of lost wages, as well as the difficulties of those with criminal records finding jobs, whether that means returning to their old ones or training for new ones.

Further complicating the drug ban are the strict sentencing guidelines that often are unnecessarily cruel and not enforced equally. Too often, the story of marijuana and race has focused on crime and punishment. Today, Black and brown people are still more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses and serve longer sentences than white people, despite similar use rates.

Finally, taxing and regulating marijuana boosts the economy and creates jobs. By simply levying a tax on marijuana like we do cigarettes and alcohol, state and local governments could raise more than $6 billion a year. States such as Colorado and Washington that tax and regulate marijuana have already generated millions of dollars for health care, education, infrastructure and other public investments.

Given the failures of prohibition and the public support for legalization, America needs measures to control the marijuana industry and protect public health. We need to create and fund an independent national task force or commission to research the impact of the federal ban on peoples’ lives. The group should include physicians and front-line medical providers, national experts on infectious diseases, wage earners coping with the pandemic, lawmakers at all levels of government and law enforcement officials.

The government should oversee all cannabis production, testing, distribution, labeling and sales. Money should be invested in research, education and substance abuse treatment as well. We can advance public health and protect our children through effective evidence-based regulation of marijuana in the United States.

The federal ban on marijuana seems unnecessarily cruel, costs billions of dollars and exudes racism. We need policies that pursue administrative remedies, pardon minor offenders, and prioritize science and research. The marijuana prohibition is both an economic issue and a matter of racial justice and equality.

Scharnau is retired from a history teaching career of some 50 years. His email address is LiberalRalph@gmail.com.