September 4, 2012

To Legalize Pot ... Or Not?

The on-line New Yorker features a fascinating article entitled "The Throwaways," written by Sarah Stillman. The article talks about how police "convince" people caught with piddling amounts of marijuana to go undercover to arrange drug deals that can lead to future arrests in exchange for a recommendation to drop the charges. The result is often fatal, as untrained amateurs are sent out to interact with hardened criminals. I know for a fact this goes on where I live. You can bet it does in your town, too. It is a reprehensible practice, made all the more so when you compare the risk required versus the gravity of the original offense.

We hear talk of marijuana as a gateway drug that leads to the abuse of other, more harmful drugs. It helps to think of marijuana in this context as an important gateway drug used regularly by police as a handy-dandy excuse to conduct otherwise sketchy searches of homes and vehicles and to detain individuals based on the presence of even a single marijuana seed. The mere suspicion that marijuana might be present is good enough to justify a search.

As far as I am concerned, this practice alone makes me take a harder look at legalizing the sale of marijuana. Based on my experience in Vietnam, where I lived and worked with guys who smoked pot pretty much 24/7 with no obvious ill effects, I can't see where adding marijuana to the list of legally available relaxants such as alcohol and cigarettes — with the same social and legal restrictions such as prohibitions on driving while high or the sale to underage buyers — would have any appreciable impact on day-to-day living. Well, that's not entirely true. Society would stand to benefit in at least three different ways: more effective allocation of funds for the war on drugs; tax revenues from the sale of marujuana; and reduced prison populations.

First off, resources in the inaptly named war on drugs could be concentrated on more dangerous forms that should be banned. Legalizing marijuana sales would not in my view be a green light for consuming any and all drugs. Crystal meth and designer drugs of unknown lethality — and yes, cocaine and heroin — should continue to be banned and producers and distributors prosecuted. Same for the illicit sales of prescription drugs such as Oxycontin. Society should continue to send a clear mixed message here. Given the way bureaucracies work, you probably wouldn't see any immediate savings, but certainly resources to fight more dangerous drugs would increase.

Second, the underground economy of marijuana sales would enter the revenue mainstream. How much that would bring in to states and the federal government is hard to gauge, but we are talking billions not millions. The idea is that the street price already shows what people are willing to pay. Assuming that the legal street price is kept roughly the same, the profit would now be split between the government and legal purveyors, who would presumably keep more reliable tax records. Instead of funding the Mexican cartels, we would be building schools and roads and hospitals.

Third, incarceration rates for marijuana-related offenses would decline sharply. There are roughly 7 million Americans under some form of correctional supervision. What percent of those is due to the possession or sale of marijuana is highly contentious. Estimates range from one in eight to one in a hundred. Either way, you have to think that legalizing marijuana might not have any immediate affect on costs, but future growth in prisons would be slowed. The impact on young people arrested for simple possession would be huge. Too many young people are acquiring police records for possession of a few ounces or less of marijuana, at least that's how I see it.

What's the down side? You would have yet another regressive tax, based not on a balance between what government needs and what each taxpayer can afford to provide in taxes but rather on personal decisions to gamble, drink or smoke. Also, there are costs associated with treating those who can't gamble, drink or smoke responsibly. By some reckonings, these costs far outweigh the revenues gained. This is a valid point. But marijuana does have positive health benefits, as does the use of alcohol in moderation. However, excessive alcohol usage is very costly to society, whereas it remains unclear what ill effects stem from excessive marijuana usage.

And make no mistake about it, illicit sales of marijuana would continue. Minors will want to smoke. A certain percentage will want to combine marijuana with other illicit drugs such as PCP or even embalming fluid. Yecch! Selling untaxed (or lower taxed) alcohol and cigarettes across state lines is also a brisk business. We know underage young people drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes. Society tolerates this as the price for making these products legal. In fact, society tolerates a whole raft of undesirable consequences. Why subject marijuana to a harsher standard?

Finally, there is the whole question of marijuana leading to the usage of other, more dangerous drugs. There is no doubt that some users of marijuana will not stop there. Persons predisposed by environment or genetics to form addictive behaviors will still be around and will still be tempted to take marijuana to the next level, so to speak. Also, it does send a mixed message to kids, who under no circumstance should be smoking marijuana or cigarettes or drinking alcohol. But we already have legalized sales of alcohol and tobacco, so how much more of a mixed message would it be?

This is a tough question. Would we be a better society if nobody smoked or drank or gambled? Probably so, but then we wouldn't be human. This is what we do. This is who we are. We take our pleasures now. Marijuana is in the mix and will remain there. Already partially legal, we need to take the next step and begin making it fully legal for sale to adults. Illicit versions will continue for whatever reason, but if folks are determined to smoke a joint, we might as well bring it into the tax stream and make some money off it. It's the American way.

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