I got to my drug dealer early on Christmas Eve, lined up behind others wanting their fix. She moved with manic energy, hopped up on her own product. Profits are good, with prices fifty times what the growers in Columbia receive. The organization that employs her took in 25 billion dollars last year; its drug lord may run for President of his country.
The drug is caffeine, the drug dealer is Starbucks, and Starbucks founder Howard Schultz is considering a run for President in 2020. I've been a caffeine addict for more decades than I can remember. Because caffeine is legal, county sheriff Dave and county attorney Peggy are not breaking down my door or shutting down our overcrowded Starbucks at 3021 Grand Avenue in Laramie. If caffeine were outlawed, enough of us would consider such a law wrong that there would be secret dens of coffee drinkers and a thriving network of gangs bringing in coffee beans from Columbia. Sound familiar?
That scenario is light-hearted, but drugs are deadly serious. 38 million Americans smoke tobacco and it kills 480,000 of us each year, including 800 Wyomingites, one fifth of all deaths. Smoking adds $170 billion to national health care costs and perhaps $300 million a year to Wyoming health care costs.
Then there's alcohol, perhaps Wyoming's favorite drug. Excessive drinking is widespread and kills 90,000 people nationally each year, about 160 in Wyoming. Excessive drinking cuts lives short more than smoking does, an average of 28 years of lost life per fatality. Alcohol is involved in a third of road deaths, in 40 percent of violent crimes, and in most cases of domestic violence. I personally experienced someone living in my household driving drunk, killing a man in the resulting crash, and then costing the taxpayers half a million dollars for his own medical treatment and prison time. A good friend lost her son in a senseless murder, committed when the killer was blind drunk. A relative drank himself to death, leaving a grieving widow. If prohibition had never been attempted, the case for trying it would be strong.
The ongoing carnage of legal tobacco and legal alcohol puts the marijuana debate in perspective. Doctors and scientists consistently agree that marijuana is bad, but not as bad as alcohol and tobacco. Some people become addicted, but fewer than are addicted to alcohol or tobacco. Marijuana kills many fewer people than alcohol or tobacco but does kill some, including Wyoming student Levy Thamba who died in 2014. A Denver Post investigation found large numbers of marijuana-impaired drivers on Colorado roads causing numerous fatal crashes. On the plus side, marijuana helps some people with pain or nausea, and some people choose marijuana rather than more dangerous opioids for pain.
Wyoming was the last state in our region to adopt alcohol prohibition and quickly repealed state prohibition when federal prohibition ended. In the intervening 13 years, Wyoming prohibition was a disaster. The law was widely ignored, bootlegging and corruption enmeshed numerous public officials (including Casper's mayor and police chief), and numerous people died, including Frank Jennings, an innocent and popular Albany County rancher.
As alcohol prohibition was ending, federal and state marijuana prohibition intensified, perhaps as a means of full employment for law enforcement. For more than 80 years we have hounded, persecuted, and imprisoned marijuana growers, dealers, and users, all over a substance that, while a vice, is much less harmful than legal tobacco or legal alcohol. This second prohibition has failed as completely as the first prohibition. One in nine adults uses marijuana occasionally, perhaps 50,000 Wyomingites of whom 20,000 are regular users. We have about 2,500 people in Wyoming state prisons; we would need eight times as many added prisons just to lock up all the regular users.
As prohibition does not prevent drug use, we end up with the problems of drug use plus the problems caused by prohibition itself. Because of marijuana prohibition, users buy illegal marijuana, sometimes with deadly contaminants. Because of prohibition, users buy marijuana from someone selling other illegal drugs, like methamphetamine, PCP, or heroin. Because of prohibition, we incur more costs in law enforcement, courts, and prisons, as one in eight arrests involves marijuana. Because of prohibition, we derail the lives of thousands of young Wyomingites with unneeded criminal records and associated costs. Because of prohibition, we lose tax revenues from legal production and lose economic growth from companies and workers seeking states with reasonable policies.
It is time for Wyoming's legislature to catch up with other states, notably Colorado. We should immediately legalize marijuana in Wyoming; have a reasonable system of licensing and taxes; provide pardons and expunge records for those convicted of low-level marijuana crimes; allow those persons to work in the new marijuana industry; and decriminalize transport of marijuana and related products within Wyoming and between states where it is legal.
Legalization will reduce crime, reduce costs, increase safety, increase revenues, and recognize that 50,000 Wyomingites who use marijuana are not criminals. We should not make public policy based solely on economic considerations, but it is also worth pointing out that legalizing marijuana will produce more economic development and population growth in Wyoming than the last several years of state central planning and corporate welfare.
By the way, there is a well known and long perfected solution to all of our drug problems. It is temperance, and it is demonstrated by some of our community members, including Muslims, Seventh-day Adventists, and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Whether with the aid of God or through our own determination, temperance is a virtue for all of us to consider. If we do smoke less, drink less, and drive under the influence less, perhaps sheriff Dave and attorney Peggy can get more rest this weekend.
Martin L. Buchanan is a software developer, writer, and U.S. Army veteran living in Laramie.