In my time at the University, many of my friends and classmates and I have expressed support for legalizing marijuana – the use, sale and possession of which is currently prohibited under federal law. We’re not alone. Last year marked the first time that the majority of Americans favored ending prohibition of pot when a May 2009 Zogby poll discovered that 52 percent of respondents advocated its legalization.

Legalization advocates often base their case in a call for personal freedom. They (and I) argue that it isn’t justifiable for governments to tell individuals what they can and cannot put into their own bodies — especially since marijuana use is generally considered a victimless crime. The marijuana ban is also preposterous because extensive research has demonstrated that pot is less harmful than legal substances like alcohol and cigarettes. In many states, patients suffering from terminal illnesses can’t obtain medical marijuana, a proven pain reliever. These patients often forsake acquisition of cannabis in fear of retribution by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

There are also economic disadvantages brought about through the criminalization of marijuana. Economic regulations or favoritism typically discriminate in favor of one group at the expense of another, and cannabis prohibition is no exception. For example, African Americans are 10 times more likely to become convicted of a drug-related offense than whites, as found by a 2007 Justice Policy Institute study. Since 1980, the number of Americans in prison has increased by a factor of five, and many have been imprisoned for non-violent offenses, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics dating back to 1910.

Since the implementation of the war on drugs, which includes the marijuana crackdown, nearly one trillion dollars of taxpayer money have been wasted. The money could have instead been invested in education and health programs. In fact, legalizing marijuana and imposing modest taxation could earn significant revenue for governments facing budget shortfalls.

And prohibition on consumption breeds crime because it results in the creation of a black market in which consumers and suppliers can’t settle conflicts with conventional, legal methods, like lawsuits or advertising, so they often resort to violence. This is evident in data detailing the spike in crime during the Prohibition Era. With this knowledge available, how do Americans find it permissible to allow our elected officials to prohibit individuals from trading or consuming the cannabis crop?

On top of concerns about personal choice and the dangers of black market trade, cannabis is also a valuable resource because it yields hemp. But the U.S. government prohibits the cultivation of the hemp fiber, even though it is extremely useful in the production of fuel, paper, textiles, and biodegradable plastic.

In fact, the cultivation of hemp was the catalyst for criminalizing cannabis in the country. Marijuana became illegal as a result of government intervention in the 1930s that did not allow the free market to work. Newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst – heavily invested in the timber industry – colluded with members of the federal government to destroy competition from the rapidly expanding hemp paper industry. What perplexes me most is that many advocates of marijuana legalization who rightfully put forward many of the free-market arguments I have championed here are among the first to decry laissez-faire capitalism and call for stringent regulations on other industries.

It’s wrong to restrict the use of cannabis, they argue, but okay to regulate the automotive industry with strict emissions standards and encouragement of subsidized hybrid vehicles. The fundamentals remain the same, whether the issue at hand is the prohibition of marijuana or ludicrous taxes and emission restrictions placed on the gas-guzzling monstrosity known as the Hummer.

Even if some people can’t swallow the proverbial pill that economic regulation is morally unjustifiable and economically destructive, they must acknowledge the lack of consistency in interventionist policies that seldom achieve the goals of their well-intentioned sponsors and instead exacerbate problems.

The systematic destruction of the free-market principles that this country was founded on, as well as the erosion of our civil liberties, can be directly attributed to the ever-increasing growth and power of the federal government. Besides being antithetical to the notion of a free society, we must understand that governments are ultimately as self-interested as the businessmen who we love to hate.

It’s time for individuals to embrace the idea of personal responsibility and ultimately decide what’s best for them – not big businesses or a monolithic government. It’s time I should be able to decide whether to purchase an efficient and environmentally friendly Toyota Prius over a Hummer, without a federal subsidy involved. It’s time I should decide whether to damage my lungs via marijuana smoke or cigarettes — or if I want to abstain from consumption of either. It’s time to legalize freedom.

Alex Biles can be reached at jabiles@umich.edu.

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