In March of 2009, a contributing writer to UCSGuardian by the name of Andrew Kim was looking into the future into ways that marijuana legalization could lead to bettering the state of California. Looking back at these words of wisdom, it seems as though they’re slowly coming true across the country.
All credit belongs to Mr. Kim, but we recommend reading across this, and asking yourself: How does this apply to now?
Call it good timing, or just sheer opportunism: Last Monday, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) introduced a bill seeking to legalize marijuana use for individuals over age 21.
The Marijuana Control, Regulation and Education Act (AB 390) would tap into an estimated $14 billion industry – leading to a potential $1.3 billion increase in annual tax revenue for the state of California and an additional $50-per-ounce levy on retail sales. Although controversial, the bill is a practical solution to California’s budget crisis.
In the aftermath of massive budget cuts and tax hikes, Ammiano’s bill would establish a wholesale market for marijuana, authorizing its sale by licensed retailers. Past efforts to decriminalize the popular drug, such as 1996’s Proposition 215, which authorized medical use, pale in comparison to Ammiano’s bold proposal. If passed, his bill would make California the first state in the country to legalize recreational marijuana use.
It’s no secret that cannabis is California’s unofficial cash crop – a covert, though common, Californian pastime. While the possession, sale and consumption of marijuana for nonprescribed use is illegal, statistics show that restrictions outlined by the law don’t stop users.
According to the 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, marijuana is by far the most frequently used illicit drug in the United States, with around 3.3 million users in California alone. Moreover, a 2006 U.S. Justice Department survey reported that 16.3 percent of college-age respondents said they had used the drug within the last week that they were surveyed, most likely an underestimated count of the true user population.
The cost of enforcement, however, is more alarming than the drug’s usage rates. The government spent about $41.8 million on law enforcement for over 800,000 marijuana arrests in 2007, according to FBI Uniform Crime Reports. The exorbitant cost only represents one branch of the ongoing federal war on drugs, which costs tens of billions of dollars every year in tax revenue. Although a moratorium on drug enforcement altogether isn’t feasible, it’s time to reconsider the costs and benefits of focusing efforts on such a commonly used substance in the wake of economic disaster.
But where supporters of AB 390 see a lucrative opportunity, opponents see Pandora’s box.
Longtime opponents of marijuana legalization argue the substance is a gateway drug leading to heavier substance abuse. However, many studies, including one conducted by the American Psychiatric Association in 2006, have shown that early marijuana use does not correlate with the use of hard drugs among adults.
Another concern is that legalizing marijuana would increase its usage. However, legalized recreational drug use in the Netherlands debunks this logic. A 2004 study conducted at UC Santa Cruz comparing the usage of marijuana in the United States to that of the Netherlands examined trends in Amsterdam and San Francisco, where recreational use is generally tolerated, and concluded that legal provisions and sanctions had little relevance in promoting or preventing its use.
Statistics demonstrated similarities in the average age of marijuana smokers at both the onset and height of their usage, and also revealed that a majority of respondents from both cities had not used the drug in the past week or even the past year before being surveyed, suggesting its legal status didn’t influence usage patterns in any significant way. The similarity in trends between two countries with vastly different drug policies definitely shows governmental drug regulation doesn’t change the number of pot smokers.
Controlling and taxing marijuana would go a long way in uprooting its black-market trade and promote safe, legitimate entrepreneurship. Furthermore, the current version of Ammiano’s proposed bill calls for a portion of tax revenue to fund drug-education programs.
By limiting the sale of marijuana to licensed retailers, consumers would likely purchase the drug legally and forgo the risk of illegal transactions, gradually putting small-time drug dealers and gangs out of business.
As an extra boost to legalization efforts, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder hinted Feb. 25 that the Obama administration would stop federal raids on legal cannabis clubs in California, reversing a trend in marijuana regulation that peaked with the Bush administration’s ban on university-sponsored medical marijuana research.
Pres. Barack Obama, who admitted to drug use as a teenager, seeks to lessen federal involvement in regulating drug use and instead delegate the responsibility to individual states, making marijuana usage a health issue, rather than a criminal one. Ammiano’s recent bill rightfully follows this trend, promoting the importance of individual responsibility.
Ignoring the funds California might collect from increased tourism, the projected marijuana tax would earn over $1 billion alone – a sum roughly equal to the spending cuts for both of California’s university systems.
Why not require a percentage of this revenue to go toward education? Investment in our college system should be of infinitely higher priority than tampering with a relatively innocuous and private pastime.
Should California take the lead and approve this bill, it is possible that other states would eventually follow suit and bring us closer to the end of a costly and ineffective war both drugs and personal liberties.
Ammiano’s proposal is a step in the right direction and comes when the antiquated moral debate over marijuana isn’t nearly as relevant as the positive fiscal impact it would have on California’s failing economy.