FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, MAY 7, 2010, OR THEREAFTER
BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
“LEGALIZED POT WOULD BE NO PANACEA”
There’s a sense among a lot of Californians that legalizing marijuana and then taxing it is some sort of panacea that would solve many law enforcement problems, make it safer to smoke pot and also produce a tax bonanza of $1 billion or more per year.
Voters will see just such a proposal in November.
Much of the pro-legalization thinking is based on analogies to the alcohol experience, which sees various forms of booze putting about $3 billion into the coffers of state and local governments each year and providing more than 300,000 jobs around the state.
But cannabis is not alcohol and the current confusion about marijuana does not constitute a situation anything like Prohibition.
For one thing, major distilling companies had produced whiskey, beer and other alcoholic beverages legally for many decades before Prohibition. By contrast, not a single significant tax-paying company has produced so much as an ounce of pot in this state or nation in the last century, if ever.
Yes, criminal elements did control much of the booze trade during Prohibition and they did foment gang warfare during the 1920s and early ‘30s. But backyard breweries and distilleries were far more rare than pot gardens are today. And when it came to larger-scale production, foreigners were rarely involved. So it was far easier to bring alcohol into the realm of legitimate business than is likely with legalized pot.
Then there’s the matter of federal law. When Prohibition ended, so did most federal alcohol raids. But Californians have their heads in the sand if they believe a state vote to legalize pot will end all federal raids on growers and gardens.
Yes, President Obama indicated while campaigning in 2008 that he most likely would not hassle mom and pop medical marijuana operations, from growers to dispensaries. And raids have eased off considerably since his election, even if they have not completely stopped. Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder, reserve the option to raid under the constitutional provision giving federal law precedence over state laws.
Obama never said a positive word about recreational marijuana, not covered by the 1996 Proposition 215, which made medipot legal in this state but authorized no other sort of use. Sure, plenty of pot users pay $40 or $50 to shady doctors who hand out the “recommendations” needed to get marijuana at dispensaries that have proliferated in some counties. That’s a subterfuge and an end-run around the law, but falls far short of open defiance of federal law, which full legalization would amount to.
Many precedents suggest such defiance would cause the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to restart serious anti-pot enforcement efforts again if recreational use is “legalized.”
Then there are the matters of price and taxation. The sales and excise levies that would produce the largest share of taxes anticipated by backers of legalization depend directly both on price and the openness of sales.
How likely are pot prices to remain at their present level of $100 per ounce or more? Not very, if every pot user can suddenly grow his or her own in a backyard or a window box. Which means estimates of the tax take from legalization are probably far higher than it would really be – especially if most pot became home grown and not subject to any taxation at all other than what new growers might pay head shops for seeds or small plants.
And how likely are the big commercial pot growers – those who maintain heavily armed cadres of illegal immigrants around their often-boobytrapped gardens in national forests and other woodlands – to allow themselves to be taxed?
With legalization already likely to bring the street price of pot down, the drug cartels behind many of today’s illicit operations won’t want to give a nickel to the tax man.
They may, in fact, engage in some kind of warfare against growers who do pay taxes and let themselves be regulated. They won’t take kindly to competition or to having their street dealers made irrelevant.
Which means legalization could bring to California the kind of drug wars that now plague countries like Mexico and Colombia, where gangs and cartels openly defy police. It’s a Third World horror scene California need not inflict on itself.
None of that even mentions the moral and medical questions often raised both by doctors and police: What is the social benefit of legalizing a mind-altering substance that produces passivity and lethargy? And what about addiction, anxiety and psychosis, three conditions the Harvard Mental Health Letter says (in its April issue) may be associated with regular pot use.
All of which means that life will surely not become simpler if pot is legalized, nor would the benefits be as clear-cut as proponents suggest.
Email Thomas Elias at email@example.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net