It's not the marijuana but its prohibition that fuels crime

Mike Meno
Mike Meno, communications director, Marijuana Policy Project
Submitted photo

Last month, while attempting to explain a recent rise in gang-related violence, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak made a string of unfortunate -- and flat-out misleading -- comments. Specifically, he attempted to blame violence by criminal gangs on citizens who consume marijuana.

"When you pay for marijuana, you are paying for the bullet that goes into the head of someone on the streets," he said in one interview.

The mayor's logic is flawed. By placing the blame for violence entirely on marijuana's consumers, Rybak conveniently ignored the central role in gang violence that is played by marijuana's prohibition and the politicians who support it.

It is true that gangs make considerable amounts of money selling marijuana. According to some government estimates, Mexican drug cartels make more than 60 percent of their profits from marijuana alone and control distribution networks in more than 250 American cities, including Minneapolis.

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However, the only reason such criminal groups make any money at all from marijuana is that our current policies allow them to. By keeping marijuana illegal and confined to the black market, our wildly ineffective marijuana laws -- and any elected official who supports them -- are to blame for handing criminals a virtual monopoly on the lucrative marijuana trade. (Many people may be surprised to learn that marijuana is estimated to be America's largest cash crop, a $36 billion-a-year industry larger than corn and wheat combined.)

Like alcohol prohibition in the last century, marijuana prohibition has helped to fuel violent crime in Minnesota and across the country.

Rybak's own deputy police chief has acknowledged that violence in the marijuana trade is caused by its prohibition, telling station KARE11 last month: "It is illegal to distribute marijuana, so the people distributing marijuana are criminal syndicates that are engaged in very violent activity to protect their turf."

Mayor Rybak is simply out of touch with reality if he refuses to acknowledge prohibition's leading role in gang violence. Marijuana's consumers, who total at least 15 million Americans every month, have been demonized long enough by more than 70 years of "Reefer Madness" style propaganda and laws that criminalize use of a substance that by every objective standard is far safer than alcohol and tobacco. By saying marijuana consumers are to blame for gang violence as well, Mayor Rybak contributed little to the urgent and rapidly expanding debate over how to change our nation's broken marijuana laws.

If the mayor truly wants to end violence associated with marijuana, he needs to be honest with his constituents and join the growing ranks of those calling for an end to prohibition and the failed policies that drive money into the hands of criminals -- and, yes, bullets into people's heads.

The only real solution to the prohibition-fueled violence is to regulate marijuana, and bring its sale under the rule of law, the same way we ended the criminal violence that stemmed from alcohol prohibition. If the millions of Americans who regularly consume marijuana had the legal option to purchase it from licensed and law-abiding establishments, they would have no reason to patronize the criminal market.

There's a reason these same gangs that deal marijuana aren't brewing hops or selling moonshine.


Mike Meno is director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, which describes its mission, in part, as to "change state laws to reduce or eliminate penalties" for marijuana use.