Time to Legalize

The celebrations taking place all across the Claremont Colleges this last Monday perfectly illustrate how the prohibition of marijuana has been and remains a complete failure as public policy. Politically speaking, marijuana legalization at the federal level is a non-starter. President Obama has said many times that he will not legalize marijuana and nobody expects Congress to make any serious moves on this issue, especially because the Democratic majorities depend on the support of more socially conservative, Blue Dog Democrats. California, however, might have compelling reasons to legalize its most valuable crop. First, the state is near fiscal insolvency and keeps plugging deficits only to find them rapidly reappear. Although the amount of potential revenue that could be raised through sale taxes and sin taxes is hotly debated, there is widespread agreement that legalization would save the state billions of dollars in enforcement costs. Second, marijuana production and distribution represents a viable economic industry for California. California’s extensive medical marijuana system and lax enforcement for drug laws has made California the leader in marijuana production in the United States. Legalization would create jobs and shift others from the black market to the legal system, which is a top priority for California’s lawmakers because the state’s unemployment rate is over 11%. Additionally, marijuana legalization would probably boost the state’s incredibly valuable tourism industry, much as the Dutch have benefited from drug tourism.

marijuana-leafThe marijuana legalization campaign could draw political strength from a variety of sources. Fiscal conservatives could support it in order to reduce expenditures in America’s wasteful and ineffective war on drugs. Libertarians and social liberals should be in favor of government non-interference with the personal lifestyle choices of individuals. African-American and Latino organizations would have an incentive to join the legalization campaign because blacks and Latinos are disproportionately targeted. Even the hugely influential strict constructionist lobby might oppose marijuana prohibition on the grounds that Congress has no constitutional authority to prohibit marijuana. After all, if it took a constitutional amendment to outlaw the sale of alcohol, shouldn’t the same be true of marijuana.

At the end of the day, marijuana is much more like alcohol or tobacco than heroin or meth. The drug does have negative health effects for users, but not to the extent required to justify complete prohibition for private use. Despite decades of searching, experts have yet to vindicate the gateway theory that marijuana use leads to harder drug usage (correlation in this case does not imply causation). For far too long, our society has considered marijuana use a criminal activity when it really should be understood as a public health concern that should be treated with education, regulation, and taxation to disincentivize usage.