Legalize marijuana? Maybe it’s time for it.
Marijuana legalization is a topic that is becoming ever more popular in recent months. A 2009 Gallup poll found that 52% of Americans now support regulating and taxing the sale of marijuana to adults in a manner similar to alcohol. A conservative estimate by Harvard Economist Jeffery Miron suggests that the US could save $14 billion a year by ending marijuana prohibition. Less conservative estimates put that figure at around $40 billion. Opponents of legalization say that any savings would be offset by the costs to public health in increased car accidents, emergency room visits and lost productivity. Are their fears justified? Evidence suggests they are not.
This wave of enthusiasm for legalization comes at the heels of a new Presidential administration that has expressed interest in ending the raids of California’s medical marijuana dispensaries. California has allowed physicians to recommend marijuana to patients since 1996, and an estimated 300,000 Californians now hold state issued medical marijuana patient cards. With cards being issued for a wide range of illnesses, California has the most permissive medical marijuana law of any of the 13 states with such laws. The dispensaries that sell marijuana are clean and safe, and provide a high quality product at an affordable price. This form of legalized marijuana distribution is the closest example of what legal marijuana may one day look like. None of the dire consequences that the opponents of medical marijuana predicted have come true, with no spike in crime, traffic accidents, or emergency room visits. Most California residents are happy with the current situation, and the taxes collected amount to millions of dollars.
The money involved in California’s marijuana industry is just staggering, an estimated $14 Billion a year. Representative Tom Ammiano, a democrat from San Francisco has introduced a bill to tax and regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol, where adults 21 and older would be permitted to purchase marijuana at licensed distribution centers. Polls show that a solid majority of state voters support the idea of legalized marijuana, and the California Board of Equalization estimates that the state could earn an extra $1.4 Billion in revenue if this legislation passes.
Legalization would also strip the criminal market of a massive source of revenue, as the US government estimates a full 2/3 of Mexican drug cartel profits come directly from marijuana sales. These cartels have supply chains reaching over 230 American cities. They are even invading our National forests, creating marijuana grow operations deep in the protected wilderness. Here armed men cut the trees down, terrace the land, add irrigation lines, apply chemical fertilizers, and wait for the marijuana to grow. This type of operation comes at great risk, but as long as marijuana is illegal the profit potential of this cash crop makes any risk justifiable. Law enforcement goes to great lengths cutting down millions of plants in these types of grow operations every year, but we will never stop this activity until we legalize marijuana.
Finally, it seems that a reason often given for why we should never legalize marijuana, the children, is actually another incentive for marijuana regulation. A 2009 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that teens can acquire marijuana far easier than cigarettes or beer. When you think about this, it actually makes sense. Tobacco and alcohol are regulated industries, and businesses who sell these products have incentive to obey the law and not sell to minors. Street dealers of marijuana will sell to anyone with money, and some even seek out youngsters to sell their product for them. Taking marijuana out of the criminal market and creating age limits that are strictly enforced will ensure that our Nation’s youth will have less access to the drug. Don’t believe me? Just go ask any citizen of the Netherlands, where teenage marijuana usage rates are half that of what we have in the US.
Written by Jason Matthys, the vice president of the SGA and the founder of the NVCC chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP).