We should legalise pot to fight the coronavirus

A woman making a purchase in Chicago on the first day of legalization throughout the state. KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP via Getty Images
  • The novel coronavirus has left the US economy in tatters with millions out of work.
  • Criminal-justice reform has perhaps never been more popular, and yet people still keep getting charged with marijuana-related offences.
  • Legalization would provide much-needed tax revenue and new business opportunities. It would also decrease confrontation between civilians and the police.
  • It’s time (well, past the time, really) to just legalise it already.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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The US is mired in catastrophe. A pandemic, an economic meltdown, and a vacuum of competent governance are all conspiring to make the moment exceptionally miserable.

One positive (if still tenuous) development has been the national fervor in support of criminal-justice reform. Part and parcel with that is drug-policy reform. And the simplest drug-policy reform is legalizing marijuana.

Americans can barely reach a consensus on anything, but a Pew Research poll from November found a full two-thirds supporting full legalization.

There are plenty of reasons the moment is ripe to finally make the move toward legalization and no reason this couldn’t be done if politicians could just get out of their own way.

This is the right moment to crush the illegitimate market and avoid another “vape panic.” It would mean arresting fewer young people and forever altering their lives for the worse. It would give the public a legal alternative to alcohol, a more destructive drug by magnitudes.

At a time when the pandemic-driven economic recession has obliterated jobs and decimated state budgets, legalised cannabis opens up new avenues for tax revenue and creates worlds of economic opportunity.

Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey said this week that legalizing marijuana would be “an incredibly smart thing to do,” particularly given the state Senate’s proposal to borrow $US9.9 billion. Given the prospect of such an enormous amount of debt, it makes little sense to leave an estimated $US300 million a year in tax revenue from legalised cannabis is just sitting there.

Get to work, lawmakers

Given these benefits, it’s a wonder that states – even those that have had trouble with legalization before – aren’t hurrying to move new legislation forward.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo long opposed legalization in New York until he saw it as an opportunity to revitalize the long-stagnant economies in many formerly industrial upstate towns. But even with a fully Democratic legislature in a deep-blue state, he couldn’t get it passed two years in a row.

This was in part because Black lawmakers blocked the bill over concerns that it wouldn’t do enough to ensure nonwhite communities could reap some of the financial benefits, particularly since these communities have disproportionately borne the brunt of its criminalization in the form of drug-related crime and arrests.

Knowing this is a sticking point for a group of legislatures with the power to stop the legislation, why not work this out ahead of time?

The coronavirus might be keeping lawmakers from doing their business in Albany, but couldn’t they negotiate over Zoom and bring a piece of emergency legislation to the table?

Governments have already demonstrated they’re willing to rewrite the rules as we go during the pandemic, which includes doing away with some archaic, puritanical bits of red tape – and producing modern miracles like “to-go cocktails.”

State legislatures should do the same for marijuana, especially in states where public opinion is so overwhelming that legalization is all but inevitable anyway.

You don’t have to love it, but accept the time has come

While states can expedite the legalization process, the federal government also needs to take some steps to make this a reality.

The president cannot legalise marijuana, but he can remove its absurd classification as a Schedule I narcotic of the Controlled Substance Act, which are reserved for “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

Eighteen members of Congress in 2014 implored President Barack Obama to take marijuana off of Schedule I. Obama demurred, insisting it was Congress’ job, which was ironic given the president’s affinity for issuing executive orders with his “pen and phone.”

His vice president, Joe Biden, now the presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, has historically been anti-pot. In fact, he’s been one of the worst drug warriors of all time, writing destructive and scientifically ignorant legislation with the severest punishments available.

Biden still won’t go “full legalization,” but he has promised to remove pot from Schedule I. That’s huge.

Marijuana’s Schedule I designation is the biggest reason banks are skittish about working with legal cannabis businesses.

Despite soaring demand during the pandemic, legal businesses face disadvantages that the fully legalised alcohol and tobacco industries don’t have to contend with.

Gov. Gavin Newsom addresses this issue in his most recent California budget:

“Cannabis businesses have less access to banking services that could provide liquidity, have a younger consumer base likely to be disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 recession, and still must contend with competition from the black market.”

Put simply, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s absurd and outdated definition of cannabis is bad for business. And we can’t afford “bad for business” for no good reason.

States need to do their part, but the biggest obstacle remains the federal government.

So for the people, for the economy, for justice: Legalise it.