The Debate Over Legalization

To be sure, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano’s
bill to legalize marijuana in California is worthy of discussion.

Millions are spent on going after pot
growers, sellers and users, to no noticeable effect. Any college student,
aging hippie or suburban housewife who gets nauseous on aspirin can,
with a little work, find a little weed for purchase.

Or, one can take advantage of an old
“football injury,” find the right doctor and get a prescription
for medical marijuana. Any mid-sized California city with a moderately
progressive population has at least one, and often several dispensaries.

While California
struggles through one of its worst financial downturns in decades, one
has to wonder: What is the
motivation here?

On the one hand, the state would save
money by ending prohibition of marijuana in two ways: 1) law enforcement
and 2) incarceration.

Many law enforcement officials will
say privately that their efforts to investigate, bust and prosecute
people associated with marijuana — at all levels — is largely wasteful.

With prisons bursting at the seams,
many of the low-level drug offenders could theoretically be freed under
a marijuana legalization plan, if it were to include some amnesty for
such offenders. This will lead to more savings for taxpayers, at little cost.

Granted, legalizing pot would only
stop interdiction efforts derived from the state, as weed is unlikely
to lose its standing as a controlled substance at the federal level
anytime soon. However, given President Obama’s stated “hands-off”
approach to states with legal medicinal marijuana, it’s not impossible
to believe a similar philosophy could be applied to a state where all
restrictions were lifted.

Yet one of the selling points for the
marijuana bill is what will happen alongside the plant’s legalization:
heavy taxes on its sale.

Certainly, some level of tax makes
sense. Marijuana is a drug, and other drugs are considered to have a
societal cost for their use, thus a tax to compensate for that cost.

And it’s reasonable to believe that
some of the cost pot users will pay in a sales tax will be offset by
lower prices for the core product, given that the black market that
largely exists now for marijuana sets pot prices artificially high (no
pun intended).

Still, all of this ignores California’s
recent history in trying to address a societal ill through sales taxes.

The best example of this is cigarettes.
Since the late 1980s, voters and politicians alike have had few qualms
about levying additional taxes on cigarettes. At first, these were directly
linked to addressing ill effects from smoking, such as public health
programs and awareness campaigns aimed at children.

That didn’t last, however. Government
officials at both the state and local levels began to realize that given
the stubborn tenacity of smokers’ habits, the amount of money coming
from taxes was greater than any reasonable amount that could be spent
directly on addressing tobacco’s effects.

So they spent it on other things. And
nary a cry of protest was heard from either major party, because after
all, these are smokers. If they don’t like paying the tax, they can
quit.

That approach ignores a truism perhaps
as ugly as a tar-blackened lung: Governments always find a way to spend
money, and will come to rely on any source of money they get.

By linking cigarettes to spending for
functions having nothing to do with the effects of smoking, governments,
rather than curbing appetites for smoking by dissuasion through cost,
in effect hooked themselves on cigarettes.

Look at one of the proposals voters
will decide in May: Take tobacco taxes from Proposition 10, which
previously dictated they be used on children’s health programs, and
apply them to the state’s general fund.

That tobacco taxes were paying for
children’s health programs could be seen as dubious enough, but for,
in essence, textbooks, bridges and paper-pusher salaries in Sacramento?
Illogical, frustrating and a glaring example of good intentions gone
wrong.

To his credit, Ammiano’s bill professes
no lofty ambition in regard to using sales taxes from pot to address
the concomitant problems legalizing it would create. Such revenues,
under his bill, go right to the state’s bottom line.

Bank on it: If marijuana is legalized
and heavily taxed, it will be sooner, not later, before lighting up
is seen as a necessary way for California to keep the lights on, literally.

And the phrase, “What were they smoking
when they came up with that one?” will have a new, more lamentable
second meaning.