Pittsburgh aims high with decriminalization

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On Monday, Dec. 21, the Pittsburgh City Council voted 7-2 to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. Before the law was passed, marijuana possession was punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. Now, when police catch someone in possession of under 30 grams of marijuana, they will confiscate the drug and assess up to a $100 fine. No jail time.

The Pittsburgh City Council made the right decision, and they deserve recognition and praise for it. At the same time, we should demand even more from our city council and our elected officials at all levels of government: full legalization.
Legalizing marijuana nationwide would save taxpayers billions of dollars on the futile War on Drugs. Every year, federal, state, and local governments spend as much as $50 billion policing drug use, especially marijuana, especially marijuana. Imagine if we could instead use that money to build new schools, fix America’s crumbling infrastructure, or even reinvest it into drug prevention and addiction treatment programs. That’s to say nothing of the additional tax revenue that a legal marijuana market would generate. According to a study by the Cato Institute, legalizing marijuana would generate $8.7 billion in tax revenue. Legalization would also empower police to address real matters of public safety. Decriminalization and legalization enable police to focus less on low-level offenders and focus more on dealers, gangs, and cartels, forces that really do harm the public and deserve undivided attention.

Pittsburgh’s move to decriminalize marijuana will keep people out of already crowded jails. The United States incarcerates more of its own citizens than any other country, even China, an authoritarian state with over three times as many citizens. As many as 50% of America’s prisoners are nonviolent offenders, usually for drug possession. Legalizing marijuana nationwide would keep millions of people from going to prison every year, and can save lives, communities, and money.

Perhaps the most important reason to support legalization, though, is the clear racism in the way marijuana use is policed. Let’s face it, a lot of white, middle-class kids at Carnegie Mellon smoke marijuana, but I doubt that many Carnegie Mellon students worried much about getting a $500 fine for possession. According to a 2013 study by the ACLU, even though white people and black people use marijuana at the same rate, black people are four times more likely to be arrested for possessing marijuana than other groups. For white people, using marijuana comes with a slap on the wrist. For black people, it can derail your entire life. While decriminalization is a step forward towards equal treatment, the fine can still be applied to perpetuate systemic racism. Decriminalization and legalization help ensure that the law is applied fairly to everyone.

Pittsburgh took a huge step forward when City Council voted to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. The move will save taxpayers money, make the streets safer, depopulate jails, and promote racial justice. However, while we applaud City Council, we must acknowledge that any journey is more than the first step forward. Now that we have forward momentum, we must work even harder to make marijuana legal.