It looks like the pot debate just got real. As the nation faces its worst economic crisis in generations, California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano has introduced a trailblazing bill to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol. Hard on the heels of Michael Phelps’ nationally-resonant bong demo, Ammiano’s gesture is a whole lot more intentional. One hopes it will stir the long-overdue national examination of the financial and human price that we pay for criminalizing pot.
The most widely used illicit drug in the western world, marijuana is a fact of life that’s been sampled by upwards of 100,000,000 Americans. Officially prohibited since 1937, we finally seem on the threshold of a promising moment in our nation’s tortured relationship to the drug. On November 4 alone, Massachusetts decriminalized personal pot use, Michigan became the thirteenth state to allow its medical use, and we elected a president who’s openly admitted to smoking it. National polls and the yawn that greeted the Phelps media frenzy indicate that Americans are reconciled to pot’s largely benign role in our culture.
Nevertheless, the mindless prohibition enforcement machine rolls on. In 2007, over 800,000 Americans were arrested for marijuana-related crimes (nearly 90 percent of them for possession), with upwards of 85,000 of them serving sentences in jail or prison. In the U.S., incredibly there are more arrests for marijuana possession each year than for all violent crimes combined. This astounding human toll from enforcing the ban on marijuana costs taxpayers roughly $8 billion each year. And those wasted resources are further compounded by the total capitulation of the massive pot market to an underground economy to gangsters who laugh all the way to the bank.
Amidst a national economic meltdown, California’s budget turmoil is the worst in the nation. After an excruciating three-month deadlock, the dysfunctional Sacramento legislature closed a $42 billion deficit by slashing aid to the most vulnerable in the state, raising a host of taxes and fees, and kicking the can down the road with billions more in borrowing. Meanwhile, California’s largest cash crop was studiously avoided in the frenzied search for politically-viable revenue sources. California’s marijuana yield is conservatively valued at $13.8 billion annually – nearly double the value of the state’s vegetable and grape crops combined.
Reformers have long complained that massive marijuana revenues are routinely ceded to criminal syndicates. But that’s how prohibition works, until we come to our senses. The U.S. ended alcohol prohibition just over 75 years ago, when its failure could no longer be ignored. That unfortunate social experiment triggered a host of familiar outcomes – mass imprisonment, unchecked violence, official corruption, and routine violation of the law by millions of Americans. But what finally hastened its demise in 1933 was the Depression itself, as public opinion and a progressive new president insisted the waste of resources and potential revenue had to stop.
The sheer scale of our current fiscal misery demands a similar reality check: Marijuana already plays a huge role in the California and national economies. It’s a revenue opportunity we literally can’t afford to ignore any longer. It’s time to end the unjust charade of marijuana prohibition, tax this flourishing multi-billion dollar market, and redirect criminal justice resources to matters of real public safety. Assemblyman Ammiano has done an enormous service by breaking the silence on this common-sense solution.