The Seattle Times congratulates former Seattle police chief and new Obama “drug czar” Gil Kerlikowske for ending the use of the phrase, “war on drugs.” The Times is right, “words do matter,” (though you wouldn’t think so from some of their other editorials), but rather than just rebranding our failed experiment with prohibition, isn’t it time to have a serious conversation about ending it entirely?
For example, take marijuana. Seriously, go ahead and take it. I don’t care, and neither should the government.
All the D.A.R.E program scare rhetoric aside, marijuana is a relatively innocuous substance that’s proven no more dangerous and no more a “gateway drug” than alcohol. A majority of Americans have used marijuana at some time in their lives, and an overwhelming majority of them have used it responsibly. It is easily grown in backyard gardens and on indoor window sills, yet our prisons are bursting at the seams, at great taxpayer expense, with petty users and small time dealers. Meanwhile, the U.S./Mexican border has been turned into a bloody war zone as violent drug gangs fight to the death over control of this lucrative, multi-billion dollar black market.
Where’s the sense in that?
With the Obama administration signaling its intent to back off enforcement conflicts with state medical marijuana laws, California’s dispensaries are set to evolve into an informal, quasi-legal marketplace, but if we’re going to repeal prohibition, the best course would be to do it honestly and do it right. And fortunately, we already have here in Washington state not only a model for the legalization of a potentially dangerous intoxicant, but an established system in place for regulating, selling, and perhaps most importantly, taxing the hell out of it.
Of course, I’m talking about Washington’s oft-reviled State Store system.
Other states may be further along the political path toward de facto legalization, but no other state, with the exception of my native Pennsylvania, has a more robust system already in place for effectively executing it. Washington already heavily regulates the in-state manufacture of wine, beer and distilled spirits, and maintains an extensive statewide network of retail stores and distribution centers for the sole purpose of operating its exclusive monopoly on the retail sale of liquor. A similar monopoly on the legal sale of marijuana would not only be easily implemented, but highly profitable for taxpayers and state farmers alike.
At an estimated street value of over $1 billion a year, marijuana is already Washington’s number two cash crop, second only to apples, and consistently ranking us among the top five pot-producing states. By legalizing and regulating a crop that is already being grown, the state could impose standards of consistency and quality on the product, and by setting prices as the only legal buyer for the crop, farmers could be assured a stable, legal income for their efforts.
And considering the existing federal ban on marijuana, and the federal government’s constitutional authority over interstate commerce, Washington’s State Stores, by necessity, would initially only be able to buy and sell state-grown product, thus nurturing a nascent hemp industry that would eventually produce a valuable export commodity once the ban is lifted nationally, perhaps even dominating the market.
As for retail and consumption, the same restrictions that apply to the sale and use of liquor would apply to the sale and use of marijuana, with the state likely maintaining prices at or near current street levels. The result would be hundreds of millions of dollars a year in additional state revenues, plus hundreds of millions of dollars in savings from law enforcement and incarceration (not to mention the elimination of the incalculable human suffering caused by our current prohibition.) Distribution to minors, for profit or otherwise, would be strictly prohibited and harshly punished, as would driving under the influence of marijuana. And just as consumers may already legally make their own beer and wine for their own consumption, the current guidelines on medical marijuana could be easily adapted to apply to all home growers.
And the societal impact? Most studies I’ve seen suggest that marijuana use would indeed rise slightly if legalized, and thus we should likely expect an increase in marijuana abuse, and the personal and social costs associated. (Marijuana is not an addictive substance like, say, nicotine or heroin or even alcohol, but it can constitute an addictive behavior like problem gambling.) Thus a sizable portion of state profits from the production and sale of marijuana should be dedicated toward prevention and treatment programs for marijuana, alcohol, drugs and other addictive substances and behaviors. In the end, the revenue earned from legalizing marijuana could be used to curtail the abuse of other more dangerous substances.
I know this might sound to some like a radical proposal, but our current prohibition on marijuana simply isn’t working, and its widespread illicit use only serves to undermine respect for the law by normalizing its violation. Meanwhile, the State Store system we created after the repeal of alcohol prohibition leaves us uniquely positioned to take the lead in responsibly moving toward marijuana repeal as well. And even if the feds attempt to block such a dramatic shift in marijuana policy, either through the courts or through direct conflict with state agencies, our effort to create a viable model for full legalization would at the very least spark a real national conversation on the pros and cons of our current failed, national policy.
And that’s a conversation that’s long past due.