Everyone knows marijuana use carries risks and is potentially harmful. But does that mean governments should spend valuable resources policing its use and putting people in jail?
Alaska, Oregon, Florida and the District of Columbia are considering following the lead of Colorado and Washington state in removing the prohibition on buying small quantities for personal use.
If passed, marijuana legalization should be accompanied by other laws that would levy substantial taxes on the drug, and prevent the sale to minors, in the same way that minors are not allowed to drive cars or purchase alcohol and tobacco.
Presumably people would not be allowed to drive while high, because that would pose a danger to others. Further, just as the government discourages alcohol and cigarettes, it should also discourage people from smoking weed, similar to former First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign and warnings on cigarette packages.
The late economist Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize winner, said: “We all know that overeating causes more deaths than drugs do. If it’s in principle OK for the government to say you must not consume drugs because they’ll do you harm, why isn’t it all right to say you must not eat too much because you’ll do harm? … Where do you draw the line?”
Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron has estimated that marijuana legalization would save $15 billion annually in enforcement costs.
When marijuana is illegal, black-market operatives reap the excess revenues. However, if marijuana were instead legally sold and taxed, states would get revenues that could be used to help drug addicts, expand public-safety programs, provide new community resources such as parks and schools, and lower existing taxes.
In 2010, Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron estimated that marijuana legalization would save $15 billion (updated to 2014 dollars) annually in enforcement costs. If marijuana were taxed like tobacco and alcohol, revenues could rise by an additional $7 billion. This $22 billion is more than the United States spends on the entire Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
During the first eight months of 2014, when marijuana was legal and taxed in Colorado, the state’s tax revenue from marijuana sales stood at $33 million. If the usage levels in August stay constant until the end of 2014, Colorado will collect $56 million in sales tax revenues.
Alaskans are undecided about marijuana legalization, with polls showing a toss-up. Though Alaska is a deep-red state, many of its residents also have a strong libertarian streak, and the state was one of the first to legalize medical marijuana. Ballot Measure 2 would allow all adults over 21 years of age to possess up to 1 ounce and six marijuana plants (encouraging gardening among Alaskans). Marijuana purchases would be taxed at $50 an ounce and regulated by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.
Using Colorado’s revenues as a baseline, and adjusting for adult population size, usage rates and tax structure, I calculate that Alaska would collect an additional $12 million in tax revenue in the first year if Ballot Measure 2 is voted into law. That would be enough revenue to cut hunting and fishing license taxes and fees by more than 40%.
In Oregon, polls show a slight trend in favor of legalization. If Oregonians vote for Measure 91, adults would be allowed to possess up to 8 ounces of the drug and four marijuana plants. Production and sales would be regulated by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, and sales would be taxed at 35%. Oregon stands to collect $46 million in sales taxes if residents vote for Measure 91. That would be enough to eliminate residents’ state property tax bills, which bring in $19.9 million, and cut the estate tax, which generates $102 million, by 25%.
In Washington D.C., Initiative 71, which has a commanding lead in polls, would allow adults to possess up to 2 ounces of the drug and six marijuana plants. It would be legal to give away marijuana, but not to sell it or smoke it in public. In D.C., taxes cannot be imposed by ballot initiatives, so it would be up to the City Council to legalize sales and set tax rates. Washington D.C. levies a high tax rate for cigarettes — $2.90 per pack — and residents could expect a high tax for marijuana also.
Initiative 71 would not legalize marijuana on federal lands, which comprise 22% of the District, including the National Mall, Rock Creek and Potomac Parks, and other smaller parks in circles and squares. Marijuana possession on land controlled by the federal government can lead to six months in prison, $5,000 in fines and a criminal record. D.C. residents and visitors would have to watch carefully where they walk if marijuana is legalized.
Oregon, Alaska and Washington D.C. already allow residents to use marijuana for medical purposes. That is not the case in Florida, where Amendment 2 to the state constitution would legalize marijuana, regulated by the Florida Department of Health, to treat “debilitating medical conditions.” The measure has strong support, but since it is a constitutional amendment, it needs 60% of the vote for passage.
America learned from Prohibition in the 1920s that banning alcohol led to black-market sales, with unreliable quality, and deaths from tainted alcohol rose. People drank more spirits and less beer, because smuggling more expensive drinks was more profitable. Driven by the increase in organized crime, homicide rates increased.
In February 2014, the late Gary Becker, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, wrote: “The advantages of decriminalizing marijuana are so numerous and powerful that it is difficult to understand the intense opposition.” Becker supported legalization, not just decriminalization, since the latter does nothing to lessen the evils committed around the world by drug cartels and gangs.
One major disadvantage of legalization is that more individuals may be tempted to try marijuana if it were legal, less expensive and more widely available. Experimenting with marijuana can lead to bad consequences, including a greater likelihood of moving to stronger, more addictive drugs. Many lives have been ruined by drug addiction.
Still, states are using valuable police resources on marijuana that could often better be used for more important police work, or for other activities, such as drug-addiction programs. Turning many people — particularly young African-Americans — into criminals at a cost to themselves, to the justice system and to taxpayers, makes little sense. Let’s see if voters around the country choose a different path. http://www.marketwatch.com/story/just-say-yes-to-making-marijuana-legal-2014-10-24