Marijuana was prohibited in 1937 before most Americans had ever heard of it. Today the U.S. leads the world in marijuana consumption. Nearly 26 million Americans used marijuana last year and more than 100 million have tried it in their lifetimes. A huge commodity of the underground economy, marijuana is the nation's top cash crop, valued at $14 billion in California alone. Our state Board of Equalization has estimated we would generate $1.4 billion a year by taxing marijuana like alcohol.
Like it or not, marijuana has become a mainstream recreational drug. It is second only to alcohol and cigarettes in popularity and is objectively far less harmful than either. Marijuana is drastically less addictive and cannot cause an overdose. Every major independent study has debunked the gateway myth; for the profound majority of users, marijuana is the only drug people sample not the first. Children across the country consistently report that marijuana is easy for them to get from their peers and the black market while significant barriers exist to buying alcohol and cigarettes.
Unthinkable carnage in Mexico has claimed 15,000 lives since the Calderon government declared war on drug cartels three years ago. Our government estimates the cartels generate at least 60% of their profits from marijuana alone. Following the murders of several U.S. consular workers, Secretary of State Clinton returned to Mexico this week, acknowledging that demand in the U.S. dominates these markets. But she didn't acknowledge that rampant violence is not a byproduct of the cannabis plant itself but of the prohibition that creates a profit motive people are willing to kill for.
Americans are increasingly turning against the prohibition that fails to protect our kids and guarantees a monopoly of profits to violent criminal syndicates on both sides of the border. While polls have long confirmed that large majorities favor treating marijuana possession as an infraction without arrest let alone jail, support for ending marijuana prohibition outright is quickly gaining speed. A Gallup poll last year reported that a historic 44 percent of Americans favor legalization, a 10-point jump since 2001. Meanwhile, sizable majorities of Californians are ahead of that curve, giving rise to the historic initiative we'll vote on this fall.
With this cultural transition underway, you might think enforcement of our marijuana laws would reflect their unpopularity. Sadly, quite the opposite is the case. Arrests for marijuana offenses have actually tripled nationwide since 1991. In California, which decriminalized low-level possession in 1975, arrests have jumped 127 percent in the same two decades the arrest rate for crime in general fell by 40 percent. Police made nearly 850,000 marijuana arrests across the country last year, half of all drug arrests and more than all violent crime arrests combined. No law in the United States is enforced so widely yet deemed so unnecessary.
Worse still, marijuana laws are enforced selectively with racist results. In California, African Americans are three times more likely than whites to be arrested for a marijuana offense despite comparable or even lower rates of consumption. An expose by the Pasadena Weekly found that blacks, who represent 14 percent of that city's population, accounted for more than half all marijuana arrests in the last five years.
It's hard to overstate the significance of the vote this November. Banning marijuana outright has been a disaster, fueling a massive, increasingly brutal, underground economy, wasting billions in scarce law enforcement resources, and making criminals of countless law-abiding citizens. Elected officials haven't stopped these punitive, profligate policies. Now voters can bring the reality check of sensible marijuana regulation to California.
Stephen Gutwillig is the California State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, the nation's leading organization working to promote alternatives to the failed war on drugs.