Monday, April 21, 2014

Marijuana Decriminalization: A Recipe for Environmental Destruction?

     Marijuana, grass, reefer, pot, herb, ganja, whichever nickname you prefer, Maryland’s general assembly recently passed a bill to decriminalize (not legalize) possession of less than 10 grams of it. Governor O’ Malley signed the bill and it will take effect in the beginning of October. Although this bill does not condone marijuana growing operations in the state of Maryland, its outcome is likely to increase demand for one of America’s favorite recreational drugs (surpassed only by alcohol and tobacco).
     Approximating illegal drug consumption is quite tricky, let alone determining black market value; however, over 14 million Americans regularly consume marijuana in a market worth an estimated $2.34 billion. But before you rush out to buy the finest bag to celebrate this momentous occasion in Maryland’s history, I’d like to reveal some of the clouded side effects of marijuana.
     According to The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, prohibition of marijuana costs tax-payers $12 billion annually for eradicating crops, prosecution and incarceration, law enforcement and other anti-marijuana-related programs ( ).  Meanwhile, the legalization of marijuana in Colorado brought in over $3.5 million in taxes, licenses, and fees in January alone.  Compared with last year’s revenue of a $256,856 for medicinal marijuana only, legalization obviously has the potential to generate a substantial amount of money.  Many Marylanders see decriminalization as the first step to full-on, tax-generating, marijuana legalization.
    However, in addition to public health concerns, marijuana poses significant risks to our environment and requires the same resources as any other crop.  In 2013, California authorities seized 119,000 pounds of trash, 17,000 pounds of fertilizers, 244 propane tanks, 89 illegal dams, 61 car batteries, and 40 gallons of pesticides from illegal marijuana growing operations!  In addition to pollution, outdoor operations in California alone use nearly 60 million gallons of water a day during the growing season, which is 50 percent more than the consumption of San Francisco residents. Nationally, enough electricity is used by indoor marijuana growing operations to power 1.7 million homes.  And for every pound of pot grown indoors, 4,600 pounds of CO2 are released into the atmosphere.  Furthermore, the production and distribution of marijuana emits as much carbon as 3 million cars.  Marijuana also caused over two dozen streams to stop flowing and is considered to be the number one threat to salmon in northern California.  Perhaps marijuana isn’t as green as the plant or the money it produces.
     Although growing operations pose serious risks, federal legalization would enable states to enact legislation and restrictions to prevent many of these detrimental impacts to the environment.  Not only does the current bureaucratic dichotomy prevent federal and state authorities from creating and enforcing growing regulations, it increases the demand for black market marijuana, which only serves to exacerbate environmental negligence.  The economic benefits of the marijuana industry, illustrated by Colorado, need to be removed from drug dealers and placed into the hands of local governments where they can be spent on education, prevention, and support services.  With Baltimore City schools facing a $31 million budget shortfall next year, this policy has the potential to upgrade facilities, hire teachers, and result in an overall improvement for Maryland’s education system.  Federal legalization would also create jobs and enable marijuana to be harvested locally; currently 80 percent of the estimated 22 million pounds produced annually, come from only 5 states.
    Finally, regardless of your stance on marijuana use and abuse, people are going continue to smoke, eat, vaporize, or otherwise ingest the drug.  Keeping harmful substances out of the hands of our children should be the number one concern, but the fact remains that prohibition doesn’t resolve this issue.  Channeling income into educational resources—for drug and conventional schooling—is a much better use of public money than spending it on jailing, prosecuting, and sentencing citizens for possessing such a widely used drug.  Maryland’s move to decriminalize will produce revenue in the form of fines: first offense: $100, second offense: $250, subsequent offenses: up to $500, but it’s unlikely to equal the amount generated in taxes, fees, and licenses from lawful businesses.  Therefore, legalization should be Maryland’s next course of action in order to save our schools and the environment.
--Nick Healy

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