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Civil War on Drugs Is Keeping Us Poor. Can Cannabis End it?

Emily Robertson
Prison hallway blurred

The civil war on drugs is not only an expensive and futile effort, it’s preventing America from digging itself out of some serious debt through the sale of cannabis.

The ‘war on drugs’ is a term you’re probably very familiar with, starting from your childhood:  D.A.R.E; McGruff the Crime Dog; This is Your Brain on Drugs.  American politicians love to conjure the threat of this looming war and outline how drugs will unravel the very fabric of society if we don’t stop spending billions on incarcerating drug dealers and securing the border.  They describe the ways that drugs harm society, harm the economy, harm basic American values. But riding atop this wave of legalized cannabis, it’s time to call to question the stigmas that normalize criminalization of drugs and drug users. It’s time to bring this civil war on drugs to a close.

American flag in the evening sky

Image Credit: In Green

The Cato Institute is a libertarian think tank based in the United States that has analyzed the costs of the war on drugs for a recent report. They have found that ending prohibition would save the American government a full $100 billion.  Alternatively, by enforcing the war on drugs, the US spends $51 billion every year.  The legalization of cannabis would take an enormous bite out of that expenditure.

Prison hallway blurred

Image Credit: Off Stock

Jeffrey Miron, director of both undergraduate studies in the Harvard Economics Department and of economic studies at the Cato Institute, said in a statement, “$47.9 billion is spent annually on drug prohibition enforcement, whereas $58.8 billion could potentially be raised in tax revenue.”

Truthfully, the numbers are significantly higher than originally estimated. Legalization of cannabis has allowed for an adjustment upward for expected revenue. Reports so far show that, between sales and licensing fees, revenues have far exceeded expectations.

Cannabis Culture Store from in Vancouver BC

Image Credit: Adam Melynk

How Much Money is Cannabis Raking in For Legal States?

Revenues have continued to impress. While there’s a strong possibility that revenues will drop as the market becomes saturated with cannabis, and as one-time fees for application and licensing peter out, tax revenue is expected to remain high.

Colorado cannabis tax revenues were around $247.4 million in 2017 – a jump from just $67.6 million in 2014. Oregon showed similar boosts in sales in a matter of just one year. In 2016, sales were around $20.6 million but these spiked to $70.3 million in 2017. In Washington, cannabis tax revenues raised as much as $70 million in the first year of legalization alone. This tripled in 2016, and in 2017, cannabis tax revenues in Washington reached as much as $320 million.

Man in business suit showing rising revenue in 2018

Image Credit: Oatawa

Much of this revenue can be attributed to cannabis tourism. If other states legalize, these revenues wouldn’t necessarily drop, but could be dispersed across a wider geographical area throughout the country. Canadian cannabis tourism is looking promising for federal and provincial revenues, as it becomes the second country in the world to legalize recreational cannabis.

Miron also has hope that instead of decreasing, increased legalization across the country will make the stigma of cannabis fade and encourage more people to test it out. This could lead to even higher tax revenues, even as licensing revenue remains stagnant or falls.

Welcome to California sign with cannabis leaves on it

Image Credit: Bruce Stanfield

Society Also Benefits From Legalization

Increased legalization means reduced sentencing rates and even the pardoning of individuals currently incarcerated for ‘cannabis crimes’.  Another bonus is the prediction that money will be funnelled away from the black market, thus starving out serious drug dealers.

Miron even suggests consideration of legalization of hard drugs like heroin, cocaine, and MDMA. He noted that these drugs could add another potential $105 billion – $58 billion from tax revenues and another $47 billion in law enforcement and spending. On top of this, readjusting how we think about drugs – and what mainstream medications may contribute to the ‘drug problem’ – may help to save the country money. Could the civil war on drugs be ended with legislation instead of violence?




Emily Robertson

Emily Robertson has been writing freelance and contract work since 2011. She has written on a variety of topics, including travel writing of North America and the growing legalized cannabis industry across the globe. Robertson has a master’s degree in literature and gender studies, and brings this through in her writing by always trying to explore different perspectives. Born and raised in southwestern Ontario, Robertson moved to Glasgow, Scotland in 2016 to undergo her doctorate in Scottish Literature. She lives in the West End with her dog, Henley.

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