Going to Pot: Why the Rush to Legalize Marijuana Is Harming America (2016)
Drug War Myths
As with any public policy debate, there are going to be disagreements over ultimate conclusions. The social scientist Irving Kristol is credited with saying: “The first rule of politics is that others may not always agree with you.” We would do well to remember that in this and other public policy debates. What we are trying to point out in this book is that while there may be reasons for legalizing marijuana, we believe most—not all, but most—advocates have come to their conclusions in favor of legalization because of an absence of information and through a series of misunderstandings.
Some of those misunderstandings have been the result of deliberate falsehoods promulgated by interest groups. Some have resulted from arguments that contravene conventional wisdom and common sense, but are seized upon by those who would rather get high than critically think about the negative results of their positions or desires. Some simply do not know history very well, or are misinformed about the potency of today’s marijuana. Not all of this misunderstanding is deliberate; some arises from a lack of honest information.
We take most of the arguments on behalf of legalization without prejudice and/or attribution of motive, and simply attempt to answer, respond to, or correct them so that a full understanding and debate can be had. We believe that without this debate, without these responses to the tide of the culture right now, America will change drastically for the worse. It will begin with the most vulnerable among us, the youth. We wholeheartedly stand in opposition to harming our youth with a series of experiments that testing, medicine, science, and common sense have already proven dangerous failures.
The Political Debate
The debate, as we stated earlier, does not fall on a standard left-right continuum: some of the most ardent opponents of legalization are Democrats, and some of the most ardent supporters are Republicans. Some of the conservative support for legalization relies on libertarian philosophies, some on states’ rights beliefs. The more liberal-oriented support for legalization stems from certain beliefs in personal autonomy, and some is based on beliefs about the justice system. Almost none of the supporters of legalization of marijuana claim that smoking marijuana is without risk, but many supporters minimize or ignore the risks. Some go so far as to claim marijuana’s therapeutic properties outweigh its harms. Where the liberal and conservative supporters of legalization tend to agree is on the point of the futility of prohibition. They tend to think the “war on drugs” cannot be won and that prohibition was a failure with alcohol and is being proven so again with drugs. Further, they will argue that what we do legalize already (alcohol, for example) is far more dangerous than marijuana. Thus, the argument goes, it is hypocritical to make illegal a substance safer than what is already legal. Finally, they argue that a legal regimen of taxation and oversight will drive cartels out of business and be a strong source of revenue for the state.
As for the conservative viewpoint, in January 2014 the National Review, the flagship journal of the conservative movement, founded by William F. Buckley Jr., published an unsigned editorial from “the editors,” speaking on behalf of the journal itself. The title was “Sensible on Weed.” The editorial called Colorado’s decision to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes “prudent.”1
The editors then rehashed many of the usual arguments on behalf of legalization, as summarized above. For example, they wrote:
Marijuana is a drug, as abusable as any intoxicant is, and its long-term use is in some people associated with undesirable effects. But its effects are relatively mild, and while nearly half of American adults have smoked marijuana, few develop habits, much less habits that are lifelong (in another context, we might write “chronic”). Compared to binge drinking or alcohol addiction, marijuana use is a minor public-health concern. All that being the case, the price of prohibition is relatively high, whether measured in police and penal expenses or in liberty lost. The popularity of marijuana may not be the most admirable social trend of our time, but it simply is not worth suppressing.2
However, in the very next paragraph, the editors wrote:
One of the worst consequences of marijuana use is the development of saucer-eyed arguments about the benefits of legalizing it. Colorado, and other states that may follow its example, should go into this with realistic expectations. If the Dutch example is any guide, then Colorado can probably expect to see higher rates of marijuana use and the use of other drugs, though not dramatically so. As with the case of Amsterdam, Colorado already is developing a marijuana-tourism industry—some hotels are considering offering designated marijuana-smoking rooms, even while smoking tobacco outdoors is banned in parts of Boulder—which brings problems of its own, among them opportunistic property crime and public intoxication. Colorado’s legal drug dealers inevitably will end up supplying black markets in neighboring prohibition states. Expected tax revenues from marijuana sales will amount to a mere three-tenths of 1 percent of the state’s budget.3
So even the conservative case for legalization carries with it the admission that legalization will bring with it greater use, more property crime, and more public intoxication, and that the tax revenues gained will be minimal. The moment conservatives start actually supporting policies they admit will lead to more crime is the moment we must ask, “How is this conservative?” Although the conservative movement has many variations, the idea of being “tough on crime,” and protecting the safety of citizens and property, has always been a conservative staple. It certainly was one of the main reasons William Buckley ran for mayor of New York City in 1965. Even most liberals would not like to admit to supporting a policy that a priori would lead to more crime.
Conservatives generally favor a state’s right to experiment with social and economic policies that impact that state’s residents. Massachusetts enacted a sweeping health care policy in 2006 (“Romneycare”), but that program applied only to the residents of Massachusetts. The same cannot be said of a state’s legalization of marijuana.
It cannot be considered a state’s right to decide for itself what its mores and policies should be on marijuana, when even the legal drug dealers will fuel “black markets in neighboring prohibition states.” So much for the “prohibition states’ ” rights and for marijuana legalization in a few states being an experiment. The states do not have walls. There could be no greater modern example of nullification, actually, than one state’s deciding not to legalize marijuana, but then having to take on the effects of legalization from another state. A midyear review of legal marijuana sales in Colorado revealed that 44 percent of all sales in the metro areas of Colorado were to non-Colorado residents, while 90 percent of sales in ski resort areas were to non-residents.4 One simply cannot contain one state’s marijuana within its borders, as the National Review editors admit, and as we have already seen.
I’m a Trooper with the Highway Patrol (26 years) stationed along I-70. We have had several issues with people going to Colorado to smoke marijuana and coming back through Kansas. Four young men from central KS went to Colorado to “legally” smoke marijuana (never mind that they were under 21). Left to return home after smoking and the driver left the roadway, went through the right-of-way fence, sideswiped one tree and “center punched” a second. When the car struck the tree it spun it around counterclockwise and then flipped onto its top. The three passengers had minor injuries, the driver was hospitalized. Luckily they were all wearing seat belts. Marijuana and paraphernalia were located in the vehicle, all four stated the reason for the trip to Colorado was to smoke pot.
Another Trooper worked one where a father took his grown daughter and some of her friends to Colorado to share the experience. Dad “fell asleep,” went into the median where the vehicle rolled, sending all the occupants to the hospital. WHAT A DAD!
The consequences of Colorado’s legalization of marijuana can not be measured in Colorado accidents/issues alone. This affects us all.
On a lighter note…
Stopped a vehicle westbound towards Colorado for an equipment violation. Kansas registration from the Kansas City area. Single male driver, 22 years old. Asked where he was headed. “Colorado.” Where in Colorado? “Denver.” What’s going on in Denver? “A funeral.” I wrote the ticket and went back to the driver and repeated the questions with the same answers. Then I asked, Whose funeral? “A friend.” What do you plan to wear to the funeral? (He was wearing blue jeans and T-shirt and there was no luggage in the vehicle.) “Suit.” Where is your suit? “It’s already there.” After some discussion as to the believability of this I said: So, where are you headed? “Manhattan.” (Geography lesson—Manhattan is between KC and Hays—BACK THE OTHER DIRECTION.) When I gave a quizzical response to this he stated, “Seems like the best thing to do right now.” After a lengthy discussion it turns out he is a student at Kansas State and had pooled some money together from some friends and was taking a road trip to Colorado to buy marijuana to bring back to campus. His major is entrepreneurship.
The story is a lot longer and more detailed than that, but you get the point.
Bill in KS
Public intoxication is another problem. We do not live in Mayberry, where the town drunk is no more harmful than a neighbor’s barking dog. Quite the opposite is true. Public intoxication, whether with alcohol or marijuana, is actually quite dangerous and sometimes deadly. More than 10 percent of fatal car crashes involve marijuana use, a tripling over the past decade, according to a recent study from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.5 The lead author of the study pointed out, “If a driver is under the influence of alcohol, their risk of a fatal crash is 13 times higher than the risk of the driver who is not under the influence of alcohol… But if the driver is under the influence of both alcohol and marijuana, their risk increased to 24 times that of a sober person.” This statistic should be especially interesting to those who say that since alcohol is more deadly or dangerous than marijuana, marijuana should be legalized. Making alcohol use more deadly by the addition of marijuana—with twenty-four times the risk faced by a sober person, compared to thirteen times the risk without marijuana—is not a desideratum any sane person should maintain.
Outside of auto accidents, the argument that marijuana is not dangerous or deadly is simply fallacious. As was reported by the Associated Press on April 18, 2014:
This week, two Denver deaths were linked to marijuana use, and while some details of the deaths have yet to emerge, they are the first ones on record to be associated with a once-illegal drug that Colorado voters legalized for recreational use, as of January 1, 2014.
One man jumped to his death after consuming a large amount of marijuana contained in a cookie, and in the other case, a man allegedly shot and killed his wife after eating marijuana candy.6
The idea that marijuana only relaxes someone, and does not hype up or excite him or her (nobody can claim it doesn’t impair someone), may once have been true in small doses and at low levels of THC. We emphasize “may.” But it simply is not true today. One cannot predict a body’s (or brain’s) reaction to marijuana, especially for a first-time user: “The thing to realize is the THC that is present in edibles is a drug like any drug, and there’s a spectrum of ways in which people respond,” said Michael Kosnett, a medical toxicologist on the clinical faculty at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
He further observed that a person’s genetic makeup, health issues, and other factors can make a difference, and that first-time users might consume too much, unaware of how their bodies will react.7
Re: legalizing pot. I am a licensed social worker in both SC and NY, working at a state technical college in SC. People who argue that pot is safe, not a gateway drug, etc., are simply misrepresenting the truth. I have worked with many students who are depressed, anxious, etc., and have used pot to self-medicate. Many realize that this is not helping them to cope and that it is actually exacerbating their problems, not to mention that it is illegal, which poses even more issues. Additionally, all of them that have progressed on to the “hard” drugs have used pot first. They simply do not understand that they do not need drugs and alcohol to have a pleasant social experience. The country is sending a dangerous message to our youth, the future leaders of America.
All the best,
Elisa in SC
Marijuana’s Potentially Deadly Effects
It simply confounds us as to why people claim marijuana is not deadly. Agreed: marijuana has not been documented to be as directly fatal through overdose as alcohol has. However, it also has been consumed much less due to its general unavailability up until recently. Marijuana has been found:
**to cause deadly strokes in adolescent males (“They developed primary cerebellar infarctions within days after [marijuana use] that could not be attributed to supratentorial herniation syndromes and only minimally involved brainstem structures,” according to an article in the Journal of Pediatrics);8
**to cause acute cardiovascular deaths in young adults (“Very recent cannabis ingestion was documented by the presence of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in postmortem blood samples. A broad toxicological blood analysis could not reveal other drugs. Similar cases have been reported in the literature, but the toxicological analysis has been absent or limited to urine samples, which represent a much broader time window for cannabis intake. This paper presents six case reports, where cannabis alone was detected in blood,” according to an article in the Forensic Science International);9
**to be responsible for over 450,000 emergency department (or ED) visits per year;10
**to cause fatal automobile accidents (“After alcohol, THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the active ingredient in marijuana, is the substance most commonly found in the blood of impaired drivers, fatally injured drivers, and motor vehicle crash victims,” according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse—which also says that motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death among people aged 16 to 19);11
**to cause “a twofold increase in the risk of an [automobile] accident if there is any measurable amount of THC in the bloodstream,” according to a doctor quoted in a New York Times article;12
**to be the substance most used by teens admitted into substance abuse treatment programs, according to those teens;13 and
**as documented in the first chapter, to cause numerous and permanent changes to the adolescent brain, affecting everything from IQ to the onset of psychosis, depression, and other neurological pathologies.
The point is this: there is no level of marijuana use that is actually completely safe. As was reported in the Journal of Neuroscience in a study published in 2014, even the casual use of marijuana changes the brain.14 It is puzzling that the editors of the National Review are able to say legalization is “prudent,” while admitting use will go up. Thus our culture now labels “prudent” and even mostly benign the expanded numbers of injuries, deaths, and brain-adverse pathology that will be caused by legalization, never mind the crime the editors of National Review also admit it will fuel.
Law Enforcement and Marijuana
What of the argument that the prohibition of marijuana costs billions in enforcement, and causes hundreds of thousands of arrests each year? Let’s examine the numbers from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which ardently supports the legalization of marijuana. In its 2013 landmark study, it found that the enforcement costs of the prohibition of marijuana by all fifty states combined were between $1.2 billion and $3.6 billion annually.15 That’s about one-seventh to one half of what the United States pays to the United Nations.16 Understood another way, it is approximately the amount of additional net worth Warren Buffett obtained in one day in March, and about twenty times less than his total net worth.17 It is a lot of money, but is it an outrageous sum to fight an illegal drug that causes a lot of damage? It is about half the entire budget of Rhode Island, taking the ACLU at its highest estimate—and that $3.6 billion is not per state, it’s all states combined.18 All states combined spent six times less than Colorado’s entire budget to fight the most commonly used illegal drug in America. Is that really outrageous?
What is the price of enforcement of the marijuana laws, if one includes the federal portion? At all levels of government, from city to federal, one proponent of legalization pegged the cost at approximately $11 billion.19 Others, such as Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron (a proponent of legalization), have put it somewhat lower, in the $8 billion range. While $8 billion is a lot of money, it is a third of the entire state budget of Pennsylvania, a thirteenth of the entire California state budget, a quarter of the net worth of one of Google’s co-founders, and a sixth of the cost of the most recent Olympics. This is a substantial sum, but it cannot be said that it is prohibitive. Consider the price we would pay if we did not enforce marijuana laws. What would more marijuana use in America look like? What would it cost for more teens in substance abuse treatment, more dropouts from high school, more crime, more ER visits, more traffic accidents and fatalities, and more neurological pathology in our youth? And what would be the price in lost productivity?
I spent 30-plus years working with high school students and much of my work was with adolescents who had motivational or behavioral issues. The influence of drugs, particularly marijuana, on young people is inarguable. That influence is nothing but bad. Drug use steals the sense of joy and enthusiasm from kids about their schoolwork and their futures. Time after time, it was my experience that when kids could be moved away from smoking marijuana, they did better in school and at home… People who argue for legalization, or who deny the impact of substance abuse, have never watched someone they care about throw away their future because of drug use. I have numerous specific stories I could relay to you if you wished.
Dave in FL
We cannot point to real numbers for the costs of the fallout from further legalization, but we can presume they all would go up. As Kevin Sabet, a former advisor to President Barack Obama, has written, “Accidents would increase, healthcare costs would rise and productivity would suffer. Legal alcohol serves as a good example: The $8 billion in tax revenue generated from that widely used drug does little to offset the nearly $200 billion in social costs attributed to its use.”20 What of the destruction to families? Most readers of this book know of a family that lost a family member to addiction. The parade of horror is almost too long to detail, from staying up all hours worrying to multiple visits to hospitals and rehab clinics, to stolen property, to the toll on marriages and siblings, and to the heartache of witnessing the wasted potential of a loved one. It is nearly impossible to attribute numbers to these very real costs, but ask a family member of a marijuana addict whether society should continue to fund efforts to reduce marijuana use and abuse, and most will quickly say yes.
As for the hundreds of thousands we arrest each year for marijuana? Numbers such as these are misleading. To quote Rolling Stone magazine, also a proponent of legalized marijuana: “less than one percent” of federal and state inmates in our prisons and jails “are in for marijuana possession alone.”21 Here is how Rolling Stone breaks it down:
About 750,000 people are arrested every year for marijuana offenses in the U.S. There’s a lot of variation across states in what happens next. Not all arrests lead to prosecutions, and relatively few people prosecuted and convicted of simple possession end up in jail. Most are fined or are placed into community supervision. About 40,000 inmates of state and federal prison have a current conviction involving marijuana, and about half of them are in for marijuana offenses alone; most of these were involved in distribution.22
(Rolling Stone cites, and nearly quotes verbatim, the recent book Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Jonathan P. Caulkins, Angela Hawken, Beau Kilmer, and Mark A. R. Kleiman.)
The argument that there are hundreds of thousands of arrests each year, though true, is unconvincing. There are over one million DUI arrests each year,23 and over one million larceny-theft arrests each year,24 but those sheer numbers tell us very little. They certainly do not tell us that we are losing the fight against intoxicated driving or the war against crime. What needs to be known about those numbers, as about the “arrested for marijuana” talking point, is threefold. First, is the action that is illegal worthy of being illegal, i.e., is it bad, a wrong, an evil, something that hurts individuals or society? Second, if it is a wrong, are we using appropriate resources to combat it? Third, are incidents of the illegal activity going up or down?
Nobody would claim that we arrest too many DUI drivers or thieves, even though we spend more money and effort doing just that than we do targeting marijuana distribution. So it is not the sheer number that should be the focus. It might be argued that the number should fit the crime. For example, if we directed more resources to jaywalking than drunk driving, that would be a mistake. Having highlighted the dangers of marijuana, we believe it should be illegal. The government not only has a right, but a duty to keep the public safe from harm, including dangerous substances. We struggle to imagine anyone who would rather the government not be in the business of regulating food, drugs, and any number of other commodities or products that are harmful or deadly. Does anyone really believe the use of asbestos in office buildings should be a right? Or that drug companies should not need to go through an FDA approval process with new pharmaceuticals? Or that physicians should not be licensed and regulated, and prohibited from performing quack procedures and making false promises?
So to the question of who is being arrested for marijuana-related crimes. It is simply and definitively not your seventeen-year-old son, smoking a single joint in the basement of your house. Nor is it his teacher, on summer break, smoking a joint while preparing an outdoor dinner for friends. Nor is it the friends at the dinner. Most are incarcerated for distribution, that is, drug dealing. Kevin Sabet, the former drug policy advisor in the Obama administration, wrote that “legalizing marijuana will not make even a small dent in America’s state or federal imprisonment rates. That is because less than 0.3 percent of all state prison inmates are there for smoking marijuana… Moreover, most people arrested for marijuana use are cited with a ticket. Very few serve time behind bars unless it is in the context of another crime or a probation or parole violation.”25
As the former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, John Walters, explained it during his tenure:
It is extremely rare for anyone, particularly first time offenders, to get sent to prison just for possessing a small amount of marijuana. In most states, possession of an ounce or less of pot is a misdemeanor offense, and some states have gone so far as to downgrade simple possession of marijuana to a civil offense akin to a traffic violation…
On the federal level, prosecutors focus largely on traffickers, kingpins, and other major drug criminals, so federal marijuana cases often involve hundreds of pounds of the drug. Cases involving smaller amounts are typically handled on the state level. This is part of the reason why hardly anyone ends up in federal prison for simple possession of marijuana.
Many inmates ultimately sentenced for marijuana possession were initially charged with more serious crimes but were able to negotiate reduced charges or lighter sentences through plea agreements with prosecutors.26
Michael P. Tremoglie is an author, journalist, and former Philadelphia police officer who recently dug into this “hundreds of thousands of arrests” talking point of the legalization movement. His research on his home state of Pennsylvania is worth quoting at some length. Citing Pennsylvania Department of Corrections figures, Tremoglie writes:
According to the DOC, there are fewer than 300 people sentenced to prison in Pennsylvania each year for marijuana.
Deputy press secretary, Susan Bensinger, furnished the following data: “There are about 256 sentences to DOC each year for marijuana. Only 5 of these 256 marijuana sentences to DOC are for possession of ‘small amounts of marijuana.’ Currently there are 13 inmates in DOC population whose controlling offense is ‘possession of small amounts of marijuana.’ Most (if not all) of these cases have other offenses (particularly DUI) in addition to the marijuana possession offense too.”
“Many people charged with the possession of marijuana do not spend one day in jail,” said [Crawford County District Attorney Francis J.] Schultz.27
A 2010 Rand study put it graphically: “To provide a sense of the intensity of enforcement, we calculated the risk a marijuana user faces of being arrested for possession. If calculated per joint consumed, the figure nationally is trivial—perhaps one arrest for every 11,000–12,000 joints.”28 (By the way, just how many joints are consumed nationally every year: 8.75 billion.29) Looking at California, the Rand study concluded that “most of those arrested for simple possession are not incarcerated at all.”30
There are arrests involving marijuana, but rarely is there jail or prison time for simple possession. When there is an arrest for possession, it is usually of a large quantity—a lot of pounds (one Department of Justice study showed the median amount of marijuana seized in a possession arrest to be 115 pounds). Moreover, most of those in jail or prison for marijuana possession are there with other charges or have pled down from other charges.
Much the same is true in such law-and-order states as Arizona. As Yavapai County Attorney (“district attorney” in Arizona) Sheila Polk recently wrote, “Arizona does not lock up people for using marijuana. Our law prohibits incarceration until a third conviction, promoting, instead, treatment and drug courts.”31 It needs to be recognized that more than half of all drug treatment referrals come from the criminal justice system.
Legalization Will Not Put the Cartels Out of Business
When we do look at other marijuana arrests, they are for distribution or multiple convictions, not a weekend backyard barbeque with buddies having a college reunion. This takes us to the next myth argued by legalizers regarding distributors/dealers: that if we did legalize marijuana, it would put the violent Mexican cartels (some of the country’s largest dealers, perhaps responsible for two-thirds of the marijuana sold in America)32 out of business. The Mexican drug cartels have nearly ruined their country and now operate in dozens of American states and as many as three thousand American cities.33
It is laudable that we all want to be rid of them. Legalizing one of their products will not do it, though; in fact, it may fuel their efforts and revenue. As of now, cartels operating in Colorado are already trying to exploit new federal banking rules that have allowed for federally regulated banks to engage in business with marijuana dispensaries. At the same time, they are actively at work raising THC levels to become the preferred provider of recreational as well as medical marijuana.34 Cartels are not solely in the drug business.35 They have moved into other black markets, including prostitution, migrant smuggling, and the lucrative bootleg movie business. Does anyone argue it is a good idea to legalize bootlegged movies to help put cartels—and other bootleggers—out of business? Of course not, and least of all Hollywood.
We also have other data on the cartels and legalization. As one recent report put it, “the violent cartels could force their way in as black market wholesalers or simply rob pot dispensaries… but the general consensus is that the Mexican cartels will not quietly relinquish the Denver market. The owner of the Colorado Springs dispensary told the Denver Post he is planning to get a concealed-weapons permit for protection when he has to move money out of the store.”36 Now we have more guns combined with marijuana dispensaries. The truth we are seeing in Colorado is the truth we have seen in other cities that have relaxed their drug laws: where there are dispensaries, there is crime.
As Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey put it in 2013, the media is not doing a good enough job of showing the connection between medical marijuana and crime: “That is what I find most disturbing about this. Twelve people have lost their lives… And nobody is talking about it.”37 Tom Vigilante, a security expert who runs a private security company in Arizona, observed after a homicide at a medical marijuana dispensary in Tempe that dispensaries are always going to be targets. “They are a cash rich environment, not to mention a lot of environments with marijuana.”38 Or, as one veteran border narcotics agent put it, “Mexico is already in Colorado without the risks [meaning they can now more easily peddle a substance that used to be illegal]… Legal businesses will likely see a rise in extortion attempts while law enforcement will see a lot of backdoor deals being made.”39
Moreover, the Rand Corporation has studied this very issue as it relates to the state of California, asking, Would legalizing marijuana in California reduce drug trafficking revenues and reduce violence in Mexico?40 In a 2010 study, Rand scholars concluded, “not to any appreciable extent unless California exports drive Mexican marijuana out of the market in other states; if that happens, in the long run, possibly yes, but unlikely much in the short run.”41California alone makes up one-seventh of America’s drug market—more than any other state. Were it to fully legalize the drug, as Colorado and Washington State have, Rand concludes this would eat into, at most, about 3 percent of the Mexican drug cartels’ profits.42
One other point about black markets and sumptuary laws: legalization does not eliminate black markets. As a recent report from the Tax Foundation has found, over 55 percent of the cigarette market in New York, over 50 percent of the cigarette market in Arizona, and nearly 50 percent of the cigarette markets in New Mexico and Washington are black market or smuggled cigarettes from other states.43 What constitutes the black market smuggling of cigarettes? “Counterfeit state tax stamps, counterfeit versions of legitimate brands, hijacked trucks, or officials turning a blind eye.”44 The argument that legalizing and “taxing the heck” out of a product—as many legalizers argue for—will end the black market is simply not true.
Likewise, it is foolish to think that legalized marijuana will eliminate black market sales in Colorado. Recreational marijuana in that state is subject to a tax of 27.9 percent. This is comprised of a 15 percent excise tax imposed on the first transfer or sale from the cultivator to the retail marijuana store, a 10 percent state marijuana sales tax, and a 2.9 percent general state sales tax. There may be further local sales tax. This tax provides a strong incentive for marijuana consumers to purchase from the black market. It also motivates Colorado residents to obtain medical marijuana cards because that is subject only to the state tax of 2.9 percent. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, rather than the anticipated decline in the number of medical marijuana card holders, in the first eight months since legalization on January 1, 2014, the state has received over 27,000 applications for new cards.45
The False Promise of Tax Revenues for the States
One of the arguments in favor of full legalization has been that cash-strapped states would benefit from taxing the sales of marijuana. This, too, is false. As Sheila Polk puts it:
Annually, there are three times as many alcohol-related arrests as marijuana [in Arizona]. Marijuana legalization does not mean fewer arrests. It means more charges for driving under the influence… child neglect; more drug-dependent newborn babies; and public disorder—putting it on par with alcohol.
For every tax dollar collected from alcohol sales, 10 more are spent to address alcohol related criminal conduct, treatment, unemployment, and healthcare.46
Legalizing Marijuana Will Cost Society Far More Than Tax Revenues Will Generate
Here is the point: to those who claim alcohol is much more dangerous than marijuana, and therefore that it is hypocritical to maintain the illegality of marijuana, we will see more damage and cost from putting marijuana on an availability par with alcohol. There is a reason alcohol use and abuse is more ubiquitous than marijuana use and abuse, after all: it is legal! The other point Polk raises brings up an interesting hypothetical. We do heavily tax alcohol and cigarettes. It would be interesting to ask governors what they would prefer, if they had the choice: keeping the tax revenue from alcohol and tobacco sales or eliminating the costs to their state associated with alcohol abuse and cigarette smoking. We surmise they overwhelmingly would choose the latter. The sumptuary revenues do not make up for the ancillary harms and costs. Kevin Sabet echoes Sheila Polk on this very point: “The $40 billion we collect annually from high levels of tobacco and alcohol use in the U.S. are about a tenth of what those use levels cost us in terms of lost productivity, premature illness, accidents and death.”47 The numbers on savings, budgets, and taxes never work out when it comes to taxing dangerous substances or substances subject to great abuse. The costs associated with just the Medicaid expenditures on behalf of those sickened by tobacco use run to about $22 billion per year. State and local tax revenues on tobacco, however, run to about $17 billion per year.48 Many rightly observe that the costs associated with tobacco use run much higher than just Medicaid’s numbers (think Medicare, private health insurance, and other unreimbursed costs). As for alcohol, it costs society upwards of $100 billion per year.49 In stark contrast, combined state and local tax revenues on alcohol amount to just over $6 billion a year.50
Those are not the only costs, though. Too many at the human level simply cannot be estimated.
I’m 56 years old, and have been an active AA member for 24 years. I have a MBA and a BS in business. My IQ is 127. I started drinking at age 18, and soon afterwards starting using marijuana. Pot was definitely a gateway drug for me, as it led to many others, including LSD, cocaine, quaaludes, etc. By the time I graduated college at age 21, I was a full-blown addict. My life spiraled downhill until about age 32, when I quit drinking and drugs.
I’ve had trouble with relationships with women, and authority figures. I’ve been on antidepressants for about the last 20 years. I’ve had trouble keeping a job. However, I am a Catholic, and my spiritual life has become much bigger in my life in the last five years, so I’m doing better. But I can only imagine how much better my life would have been without alcohol and marijuana and subsequent drug use.
You could argue, I imagine, that because alcohol is legal, that my life still would be bad because of my alcoholism, but I think pot was a bigger problem for me. If I had pot, I was generally high—day or night. I believe marijuana is a very dangerous drug. It takes away any ambition, hopes, and dreams you have of a better life. It fries your brain. Thank you for your work in trying to bring this to light.
Jack in OH
It is true, Colorado has seen its tax revenues go up since marijuana has been taxed there. The estimates of tax revenue Colorado has taken in from January through July 2014 vary, from a low of about $12 million to a high of $21.8 million in marijuana tax revenue,51 and more is, obviously, to be expected.52 But whether the number is $12 million or $22 million, this is a far cry from what was predicted prior to the vote to legalize in Colorado—less by 46 percent or more from what was predicted, according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts.53 Proponents are now saying we are getting more revenue and not any of the harm predicted. However, that is akin to saying a person in his first year of smoking is showing no harm to himself. No doctor, and nobody with an ounce of common sense, would accept that as an argument for the safety of cigarettes. Depression, psychosis, loss of teen motivation, and addiction do not happen overnight. This, among other reasons, is why Democratic Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper would forgo the revenue in his state. As he recently put it, “I hate Colorado having to be the experiment… We should not try to get people to do more of what is not a healthy thing.”54
Actually, Prohibition Was Not a Failure
Finally, one cannot engage in the discussion of marijuana legalization without someone bringing up the era of Prohibition and what a dismal failure it was. That talking point does not fully match reality. None of us want to go back to the days of Prohibition, nor do we support illegalizing that which has been enjoyed for millennia. However, if the main goal of Prohibition was to limit or reduce alcohol use and abuse in America, that did in fact happen. As the journalist Daniel Okrent found in his recent and comprehensive book on Prohibition, Last Call, Prohibition had the effect of reducing alcohol consumption by 70 percent in its first few years. Furthermore, the highest rate of consumption of alcohol in American history was 2.6 gallons of pure alcohol per person just before Prohibition. It stayed below that for a long time, even long after repeal, not reaching that level of 2.6 gallons again until 1973. Today it is 2.2 gallons per person.55 Also, as Professor Mark Moore of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government has noted in a piece in the New York Times:
Cirrhosis death rates for men were 29.5 per 100,000 in 1911 and 10.7 in 1929. Admissions to state mental hospitals for psychosis declined from 10.1 per 100,000 in 1919 to 4.7 in 1929. Arrests for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct declined 50 percent between 1916 and 1922… [V]iolent crime did not increase dramatically during Prohibition. Homicide rates rose dramatically from 1900 to 1910 but remained roughly constant during Prohibition’s 14 year rule. Organized crime may have become more visible and lurid during Prohibition, but it existed before and after.56
Prohibition had undesirable effects and consequences but two things are true: it did reduce consumption and resulting negative health and social consequences. Unlike our efforts to keep marijuana illegal, Prohibition was aimed at adults, whereas our primary concern today is children. As for the idea that the drug war has failed, and Prohibition-type policies have not worked with drugs, as we will see, this was not always true. We have reduced drug use in America in our lifetimes, but then we let up. The story and statistics are worth retelling, as they provide the guide for reducing use. It worked once, and it can again.