Justin Guiffre: Put the poor before pot

Every year on April 20, college campuses across the nation become flooded with Bob Marley music and a bit more smoke than usual as students discuss the intricacies of life and debate whether or not “Dark Side of the Moon” was meant to sync with “The Wizard of Oz.”

But 2009 is a little bit different; mix in an economic downturn to the equation and you get an added chorus of pro-marijuana legalization. The logic of the argument is sound: Taxing the legal herb would increase government revenue, while the legal costs of prosecuting and jailing offenders would decrease government costs. These arguments, along with a host of other witty economic justifications, have become the Internet generation’s answer to 1960s marijuana counterculture.

One problem that is consistently ignored by these pro-legalization proponents is that legal marijuana would likely make the world very hungry, and I’m not talking about the kind of hunger that can be solved with a trip to Mitchell Hall’s 7-Eleven.

Before getting into all the specifics of my argument, let me make my stance on marijuana issues very clear: I have no moral reservations about individuals using marijuana. I see it as a personal choice and I feel most of the moral discussions about marijuana are inane. I am for decriminalization, which would reduce the criminal penalties associated with marijuana possession and use. There are few bigger wastes of government money and as a report from New Mexico found in 2001, “[decriminalization] will result in greater availability of resources to respond to more serious crimes without any increased risks to public safety.”

Despite my generally liberal stance on marijuana, I am against making it legal. One of the first things that would happen after legalization would be an explosion in production of marijuana. This would likely come from producers of other crops switching over to marijuana. Already, the drug is among America’s top cash crops, the revenue of which is greater than wheat and corn revenue combined, according to a report by marijuana policy researcher Jon Gettman. Given the opportunity, it is likely that farmers would switch to producing this very profitable cash crop.

The exchange of food crops for cash crops is already a very serious problem, one visible in the tragic spread of malnutrition and hunger in Ethiopia and Eritrea. As author William Jobin describes in his book Dams and Diseases, “malnutrition lingers as a chronic condition in the dry areas of the Horn of Africa . cotton production is a primary example of the danger of emphasis on cash crops.” This is similar to the principle argument against the development of corn for ethanol use and given the horrible effects of last year’s food shortages on poor countries, it will likely be the primary nail in the coffin of ethanol. Tobacco, cotton and other cash crops raise the same questions but because they have an established legal market, and numerous other factors that differentiate them from marijuana, I won’t get into that debate.

Some would argue that the price of marijuana would drop significantly if you made it legal, with much of the current price being the result of its illegal status. After all, paying off smugglers, border guards and money launderers gets expensive. This is forgetting that the illegal status also creates a higher opportunity cost for producers. They must factor in the potential costs of getting caught, which can be astronomically high – jail time, fines and in some countries the death penalty. This is a huge cost to overcome, remove it and producers will quickly jump at the newly legalized crop. Also the most common way a price drops is by increased supply or decreased demand, in this case new supply is taking up valuable land that could be used to grow crops.

Surprisingly, this hunger issue is something that both sides of the legalization question fail to address properly. Until pro-legalization groups can come with a plan that would effectively mitigate this, I don’t see any reason to even consider legalizing marijuana. If I have to choose between smoking marijuana legally or feeding the world’s poor, I will choose the latter any day of the week, even on 4/20.

-The writer, a sophomore majoring in international affairs, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor.

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