Goldy broke the news earlier this week that 6 co-sponsors in the State House are introducing a bill that will legalize marijuana for adults over the age of 21. The bill will also utilize the existing mechanisms in place for regulating wine and hard liquor to establish a distribution system that makes our existing state run liquor stores the sole distributor. One thing that’s not clear yet is whether there will be any limit on people growing plants for themselves. Ben Livingston has an excellent line-by-line breakdown of the bill here.
Without getting as far into the details of the bill as Ben does, I want to lay out the general case for why the legislature should pass this bill. There are a number of ways in which ending marijuana prohibition will provide benefits for the state.
Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Miron has estimated that legalizing marijuana nationwide would reduce overall government expenditures by approximately $12.9 billion in law enforcement and criminal justice expenses. It would also generate about another $6.7 billion if taxes comparably to alcohol and tobacco. As far as I know, there hasn’t been a study of similar scope done just within the state of Washington, but University of Washington professor Dick Startz took numbers from a previous study by Miron and estimated that the state would save about $105 million a year.
On top of that, marijuana is already among one of Washington’s top cash crops, and the state is consistently near the top when it comes to marijuana production. In 2006, it was estimated that the total marijuana crop was worth $600 million. Right now, all of that money is handed over to criminals, many based in Mexico. So beyond the already substantial savings that come with removing the multitudes of marijuana offenses from our overloaded criminal justice system, the economy of this state will also benefit by having those dollars staying here and benefiting legitimate farmers and businessmen who are licensed by the state.
Protecting Young People
One of the most common arguments made against the idea of establishing a legal and regulated market for marijuana is that “it sends the wrong message to kids”. This argument makes absolutely no sense for a number of reasons. First, one could easily say the same thing about hard liquor – the fact that we tolerate sales of liquor to adults tells kids that it’s ok every bit as much as tolerating sales of marijuana to adults will tell them that it’s ok. But we know the damage that was done when we tried to ban liquor in the 1920s, and no one really wants to go back to that.
Second, the experience in Holland tells quite a different story. Adults have been free to purchase marijuana in coffeeshops throughout the country since the 1970s. Did this “send the wrong message” to their kids? Apparently not, since Holland has much lower marijuana use rates among both teenagers and adults than we do (and even less marijuana use than many of their neighboring countries in Europe).
American teenagers repeatedly tell pollsters that it’s easier for them to obtain marijuana than it is for them to obtain alcohol. It’s this fact that’s starting to motivate more and more parents (like Rick Steves) to take a stronger stand against marijuana prohibition. The policy we have in place now is actually detrimental to our young people. Establishing a regulated system that forces you to prove your age in order to purchase it provides an extra barrier. It won’t completely prevent young people from getting it (just as it doesn’t prevent it entirely with alcohol), but it will make it harder.
And even beyond that, we’ve seen far too often where young people become involved in the distribution themselves. For a lot of them, it leads to an arrest, a conviction, and a lifetime of trying to overcome having a criminal record. Yet none of that benefits our society in any way. Everyone in the state of Washington who wants to buy marijuana will always be able to find someone to take that risk to sell it to them. Undercover marijuana drug busts in local high schools have done nothing but waste taxpayer dollars, limit the options of non-violent young people who are guilty of only bad choices, and foster a greater sense of mistrust of the police. If you regulate marijuana sales, the marijuana dealers aren’t in the schools any more; they’re in the liquor store, and they’re checking your kid’s ID.
Improving Drug Treatment
One of the nice features of this bill is that it specifically dictates that the tax revenue from the sale of marijuana goes towards drug treatment. It’s well-established by now that you save money in the long run for every dollar that you put towards drug treatment. Incarceration is the most costly and ineffective way to deal with drug problems, yet it often remains the default position of most politicians.
In addition, treating marijuana the same as alcohol will eliminate another problem with drug treatment centers; that people are sometimes sent there solely because they were arrested for marijuana and choose to go to treatment over jail, even if they have no real need for treatment. Marijuana is nowhere near as addictive as drugs like heroin and methamphetamines. Focusing on people with real problems and not wasting money and beds on the people who don’t need to be there will yield far more effective results in an area where effective results can have pretty significant downstream benefits in helping people become productive members of society again.
Ending our Contribution to Mexico’s Violent War
How bad is the violence in Mexico right now? On October 30, a newspaper in Juarez celebrated the first day in 10 months without a murder with a giant headline announcing that fact on the front page. As we here in Washington were shocked by the murder of 4 police officers, that’s a fairly regular occurrence down there.
This war is being entirely fueled by the money that criminal organizations in Mexico make from marijuana. Even the drug czar’s office admits that over 60 percent of the billions being made by Mexican drug cartels comes from marijuana. Their reach extends well into Washington state, as the illicit marijuana industry brings large numbers of illegal immigrants to the area to tend to plants. Just as when it came to the criminals gangs who ran Chicago during alcohol prohibition, the only way to defeat these cartels is to eliminate the black market that fuels them.
The article linked just above gives another good reason to shift to a regulated market for marijuana – the environment. The Mexican drug gangs who supply a large amount of the marijuana in this state will often set up their operations in parks and other wildlife areas, doing a lot of damage to the ecosystem along the way. The cat and mouse game that our law enforcement officials play to try to avoid this is futile and unnecessary when we can be licensing real farmers to grow this crop safely.
Despite all of this, not many people expect this bill to pass. Last session, the legislature couldn’t even pass a decriminalization bill that would have merely made the penalties for low-level marijuana possession more in line with Ohio’s. But this is not for a lack of public support. Roughly half of Washington state residents would support a system of regulated sales for marijuana. So this is a challenge for those who oppose it, whether in the media or in elected office. Lay out your argument against it. Let us know why this bill shouldn’t pass. Marijuana prohibition has continued for decades now without any real coherent explanation for why it should continue. If it’s not time to end it, at least explain to the citizens of Washington why it’s not.