January 17th, 2011 By: Allen St. Pierre, NORML Executive Director
Editorial: Time To Change Marijuana Laws
There are substantial arguments for and against legalizing the use of marijuana. Opponents of its use strongly believe that marijuana is addictive, leads to the use of hard drugs, impairs short-term memory and motor coordination, and irritates the respiratory system. Despite these objections, on balance, it’s time to seriously consider legalizing marijuana.
Proponents of the legalized use of marijuana believe the following:
Marijuana has some beneficial qualities. It relieves pain, stimulates appetite in AIDS patients, reduces nausea in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, is an antidepressant, and relieves anxiety.
Our present laws are out of date. That is because too many people wish to use marijuana and we know Prohibition didn’t work. The reason Prohibition didn’t work is because an overwhelming number of otherwise law-abiding citizens wished to drink, and government couldn’t afford to stop them. When a very significant percentage of the population wishes to do something, which is not inherently harmful to anyone else, then government is facing a losing battle.
Save the enforcement money and tax it. The economy would be strengthened if government saved the money they spend on enforcement of our marijuana laws, and taxed it just as they do alcohol. Jeff Miron, a Harvard economist, has calculated that marijuana could generate approximately $8.7 billion in national tax revenue per year if legalized. He also calculated that approximately $8 billion is spent trying to fight marijuana. Those numbers can be debated, but it is clear that state governments, and the federal government, spend billions of dollars enforcing our marijuana laws and they don’t tax it (unless they catch someone who has an unreported income). That $17 billion could be better spent on other government programs. In signing a new California law that greatly reduces penalties for people possessing small amounts of marijuana, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger stated: “In this time of drastic budget cuts, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement, and the courts cannot afford to expend limited resources prosecuting a crime that carries the same punishment as a traffic ticket.” In other words, it is too expensive to enforce the present anti-marijuana laws.
Its use is not morally wrong. The use of marijuana is no more morally wrong than the use of alcohol. Therefore, it should not be a crime. It should not even be a misdemeanor. Each year approximately 750,000 Americans are arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana. The only valid reason for its criminalization is that government needs to protect people from themselves. Statistically, it is difficult to determine what percentage of the people who use marijuana need protecting because they eventually move on to hard drugs, but one generally recognized range is between 2 percent and 9 percent. That is 2 to 9 percent of new users, because present users are still there even if it isn’t legal. Assuming that this is true, part of the tax revenue raised from the legalization of marijuana could be used for the treatment of alcoholism and drug addiction.
Marijuana laws are not enforced equitably. According to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, blacks and Latino men are more likely than whites to be stopped and searched, and when drugs are found, they are prosecuted. He claims that in Los Angeles black men are arrested for marijuana possession seven times more frequently than whites. It is doubtful that blacks use marijuana seven times as much as whites.
Our present marijuana laws empower gangs and violence. The wars in Mexico are an example. Of course, these drug wars also deal with hard drugs, but eliminating marijuana from the illegal drug trade would make these wars less worthwhile. There is no sense encouraging drug cartels or violence.
The time has come to treat marijuana like alcohol, tax it like alcohol, and sell it either in state-controlled stores or in private stores, like liquor or drug stores. Control of our marijuana laws should be returned to the states with the federal government having a limited role, as it does now, with alcohol.
Some states or towns may continue to make marijuana illegal or control it through zoning laws. That would be up to them. But changing the law would not be difficult since government could simply add marijuana to its alcohol statutes and regulations. Once this is accomplished, the states and the federal government could tax it as they see fit. Let’s not kid ourselves. Government has lost this argument as they did with the Volstead Act. It’s time to learn our lesson.
*Commentaries appearing above are produced by the Editorial Board of the Connecticut Law Tribune. The opinions are voted on and passed by at least one third of the members of the board. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of every member of the board, nor of the newspaper