Weeding the fiscal garden

I’ve read the entire text of Proposition 19, the Nov. 2 ballot item that would legalize marijuana in California for those at least 21 years of age, and I say, why not?
Let’s start by drawing on the wisdom of Deep Throat, the legendary source who helped two dogged Washington Post reporters break the Watergate scandal: Follow the money, he counseled.
Marijuana is estimated to be a $14 to $15 billion annual business in California. Some 60 percent of that, proponents will say (and how they determine this exactly I do not know) ends up in the grubby hands of the drug cartels. The state Department of Equalization pegs the tax yield from legalization at about $1.4 billion, which comes out to 10 percent of the estimated yearly sales.
What better way to break the criminal backs of the cartels than to strip them of more than half their business? Why aren’t the rest of us getting a cut of all this action?
We’re taxing tobacco, the use of which is so widely condemned and so scientifically proven to be greatly harmful, and we do the same with alcohol, the abuse of which shatters lives and brings untold woe. As for marijuana, a lot of science calls it quite salutary. Witness the University of California’s report to the legislature on Feb. 11 touting its pain-relieving properties and the relief it can afford more effectively and with fewer side effects than a host of other medications.
Back to the money trail. Is it all that much of a stretch to side with the yes-on-19 crowd when it says arrests for misdemeanor marijuana possession — an estimated 80,000 in 2009 — are diverting law enforcement from investigating more serious things, like crimes of violence? The attorney general puts the costs for jailing and supervising marijuana offenders at “several tens of millions of dollars a year.”
I don’t recall reading any stories lately of police being called to break up a huge fight at a pot party. The former police chief of San Jose, one of several top law enforcement professionals endorsing the measure against the wishes of the state police chiefs’ association, says prohibition is what causes the violence, not the plant itself, as black markets vie for bigger shares of an “obscenely profitable” pie.
Add it all up, and it may well be that we could restore some 20 percent or more of the $7.5 billion in cuts that were needed to bring in this fiscal year’s long-stalled state budget. That is not hay.
I am distressed by the notion that legions of teens will bake themselves out of their minds, but then I realize that’s just another argument for the regulation the measure calls for. The reason marijuana is easier for the under-21 set to obtain than cigarettes or alcohol is precisely because it’s not controlled. When was the last time a street corner pot dealer asked a high school freshman for an ID? Prop. 19 would strengthen the current law that would land you in jail for up to six months giving marijuana to someone under 18, for it changes the age range to from 18 to 20.
Imposing similar strictures, Prop. 19 would prohibit marijuana use in public or around anyone under 21, penalize those who drive while impaired (although the testing for some does not look to be foolproof at this point), and, contrary to the claims of major opponents such as the California Chamber of Commerce, give employers leeway to can some jerk who’s screwing up on the job because he’s gotten too stoned to function.
Now let’s say the good citizens of your community and their elected officials decide they do not want a marijuana business in town (as in the San Marcos City Council’s coming out against Prop. 19 recently)? Under the measure, any city can make buying and selling within its boundaries illegal. This would not stop residents from being able to possess and consume, but they’d have to make their purchase elsewhere.
Whether we like it or not, people use marijuana widely — the text for Prop. 19 says one out of three Americans acknowledges it — and it’s unlikely they’ll quit now, legalization or not. Maybe if we were not broke, we could hang on to the moral righteousness that surrounds this particular prohibition. But we are broke, and taxing a relatively harmless substance that millions use regularly anyway, and would only legally be able to use in private and outside the presence of minors, is making more and more sense the more I clear the no-on-19 smokescreen from inside my head.

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