Initiatives to Legalize Marijuana: The Prospects and Ramifications

marijuana leafWhen voters go to the polls on November 6th, in many states and localities they will be asked to vote on referendums and ballot initiatives that touch on a wide variety of public concerns and issues. While most of these propositions have received little publicity, there are three that are generating quite a bit of discussion and controversy.

In Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, citizens will be asked to vote 'yes' or 'no' on initiatives that, if approved, would legalize the production, distribution, purchase, and possession of marijuana. These amendments would make it legal for anyone over the age of 21 to purchase marijuana from a licensed retailer, or even to grow marijuana plants in their own homes, as long as it was to be used for personal consumption only.

Use of the drug in public areas would largely be banned, but marijuana consumption would be permitted in specially licensed clubs or establishments that would essentially function as the equivalent of bars where alcohol is served. Only producers, wholesalers, and retailers licensed by the state boards responsible for regulating the industry would be eligible to distribute and sell marijuana, and no marijuana products or paraphernalia would be made available for sale in convenience stores or general merchandise retail outlets.

Marijuana sold legally would be subject to a state tax, and the revenue collected would be earmarked for public service-related purposes (i.e., increased funding for education, the construction or repair of infrastructure, expanded social services for the poor, etc.). There is currently a $30 billion illegal market for pot in the US, and estimates are that between 20-30 million Americans are consuming this product, so the amount of money raised by taxing the drug could be fairly substantial. Promoters of these propositions are somewhat vague about what percentage they think taxes should be set at, but if they were set too high many people might decide to continue purchasing their supplies on the black market, thereby reducing revenues significantly. Everyone agrees that legalization will drive prices for pot down by quite a bit, however, which could help make paying the taxes more palatable to the average consumer.

In addition to all the potential tax revenue that could be collected if marijuana were legalized, at a time when states and municipalities are running deficits and slashing services, legalization would also help the government balance its books by reducing the amount of public funds spent on the legal system. The prisons of America are overflowing with men and women who have been arrested and charged with various pot-related offenses, so the legalization of marijuana would cut prison populations drastically and save the taxpayers tons of money. The public has been forced to cover all the costs associated with the ongoing crackdown on marijuana sale and possession, funding police departments, prosecutors' offices, the courts, and the prison system, and there is no doubt that the War on Drugs in all of its manifestations is helping to drain state and local governments of vitally-needed financial resources.

These new laws would not provide a 'get out of jail free' card, as those who have already been tried, convicted, and sentenced for past marijuana offenses would not be pardoned if these laws passed, nor would their prison terms be shortened. Also, it is important to emphasize that anyone caught growing, processing, or selling marijuana without a license would still be subject to prosecution, as would consumers who continued to patronize illegal dealers. But nevertheless, it is clear that prison overcrowding in Oregon, Colorado, and Washington would be dramatically reduced in the long run if pot were legalized, and the percentage of their state budgets devoted to law enforcement would undoubtedly fall and fall noticeably if their legal systems were no longer being bogged down by marijuana-related arrests and prosecutions.

The "Reefer Madness" mentality that has resulted in marijuana being classified as a Schedule 1 narcotic under the Federal Controlled Substances act, right alongside heroin, cocaine, and PCP, has been driven by a level of hysteria that defies logic. The whole credibility of the Drug War concept has been discredited by the inclusion of pot on the list of forbidden and evil substances, and the ballot initiatives in Washington, Oregon, and Colorado could be seen as positive first steps toward a more rational and balanced approach to drug laws and drug law enforcement.

The Darker Side of a "Harmless" Drug

But while the anti-drug side has long been guilty of exaggerating the dangers of marijuana to its users and to society, those who promote legalization have also been guilty of ignoring inconvenient facts and glossing over the truth about drugs, addiction, and the effect that legalization of marijuana might have on the overall level of substance abuse in the United States.

Like all intoxicating and mind-altering chemicals, marijuana is in fact addictive, and drug counselors estimate that as many as 2%-3% of all pot users will develop an addiction to this substance at some point in their lives. This number is obviously lower than the rates of addiction for harder drugs like heroin and crack cocaine, and even alcohol, but if there really are 20 to 30 million marijuana users in the US alone, this means there are already over a half a million addicts dispersed among this population.

Even with restrictions on public use, advertising, and sales to minors, most experts have concluded that if these propositions in the three western states pass, each can expect to see marijuana usage among its population surge by anywhere from 200% to 300%, which means more new consumers and higher levels of indulgence among those who are currently getting their supplies on the black market. This could mean that a higher percentage of those who already consume marijuana will eventually develop addictions, and it will certainly mean an increase in the gross number of people who are addicted to the drug, which will represent a significant public health problem no matter how you slice it.

At this point, it is not clear how much of the revenues governments raise by regulating and taxing legal marijuana sales will be devoted to providing treatment for addicts. But to speak openly of diverting tax money for expanded drug treatment would tend to counteract the pro-legalization propaganda that claims pot is harmless, so it is not really surprising that the addiction angle is not being acknowledged or discussed by legalization advocates. This silence on an important issue leads one to think that if these ballot initiatives pass, and more people do in fact become addicted to marijuana as a result, funding for expanded treatment programs to help deal with the problem the governments in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington will themselves be helping to create may not be forthcoming.

Many have heard the claim by anti-drug forces that marijuana is a so-called "gateway" drug, meaning that those who use it will invariably end up experimenting with more powerful and dangerous drugs in their search for a better high. Various studies have shown that marijuana consumption does have a positive association with the use and abuse of other drugs, but most believe this is based on personality type rather than a cause and effect relationship (people who like mind-altering substances tend to try more than one, in other words).

But even if we dismiss the gateway argument as it is normally framed, making marijuana legal could indirectly lead to an increase in the consumption of other more dangerous drugs. If legalization sends pot prices tumbling, it is inevitable that the prices of the still-illegal drugs would have to go down, too, because those who deal in these substances would be competing at least to some extent with the legal marijuana sellers, and the logic of the marketplace would force them to start charging less. Assuming the propositions in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon pass, thanks to cheaper prices the levels of illegal drug use in those states would probably grow at the same time marijuana use was growing, which would be an example of what we might call the indirect gateway effect.

An Uncertain Future

Even if these marijuana initiatives pass-and polls suggest they are likely to in Washington and Colorado-the federal government and the Justice Department could throw a monkey wrench into the whole legalization plan by refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the new laws. If the Justice Department decides to charge any company or individual that tries to produce, process, or distribute marijuana with drug crimes under federal law, it would be in their power to do so and it could make it very difficult for the states to fully implement their legalization schemes. Given how roughly growers and retailers in states that have legalized medical marijuana have been treated by the federal government over the past several years, a pre-emptive Justice Department crackdown in Washington, Colorado, and Oregon (should marijuana be legalized) would surprise absolutely no one.

But until the voters have actually spoken on November 6th, and until any new laws that are passed officially go into effect, all discussion of what marijuana legalization might mean in these three western states will have to remain entirely theoretical.

In other words, stay tuned...

Posted on November 19th, 2012
Posted in Drug Policy

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