By JEREMY D. MAYER | 3/29/09 7:25 AM EDT
Smoking pot doesn’t cause schizophrenia, but marijuana as an issue sure gives our political system the symptoms. We have just elected our third president in a row who at least tried marijuana in early adulthood, yet it remains illegal.
As we discovered again this week, President Obama, like his two predecessors, supports imprisoning people for making the same choices he made.
Beyond imprisonment, one of my policy students, who was honest on a security clearance about her one time use of pot, could lose her job for doing what Clinton, Bush and Obama did.
On television, leading comedian Jon Stewart and America’s sweetheart, Sandra Bullock, swap pot smoking stories with lighthearted abandon, laughing along with their audience, who, like most Americans, end up voting for politicians who support draconian punishments for pot users and dealers.
Year after year, major Hollywood films like Pineapple Express show potsmoking in a positive light, yet legalization remains unmentionable to both our political parties. And America’s most popular Olympian, Michael Phelps, like the majority of people his age, has tried pot, but loses millions in sponsorship when it is revealed that he has done what most of his fans have done.
Several states have legalized medical marijuana, and a few are contemplating decriminalization, and yet, other states are about to prevent those whose urine tests positive for marijuana from receiving desperately needed benefits to which they would otherwise be legally entitled.
At least eight states, including Kansas, Oklahoma, and West Virginia, are actively considering making drug tests mandatory for food stamps, welfare, or unemployment. In a classic demonstration of how America has always had one drug law for the rich and one for the poor, no one has suggested drug testing recipients of billions in bailout cash. We could probably save a lot of money by testing Wall Street financiers for pot (or cocaine, for that matter).
Perhaps these accumulated paradoxes have finally become large enough for the nation to begin reconsidering its position on pot. For an issue that has been in stasis for decades, marijuana is suddenly hot, one might even say, smoking.
By jamming up the White House’s “Open for Questions” website with votes for questions about their favorite substance, advocates for the legalization of marijuana managed to force President Obama to address the issue.
This is success in Washington, even when the president chuckled derisively and came down against legalization. Of the thousands of issues in the competitive policy environment, only a few get this kind of attention.
Some think the economic crisis will help the legalization cause.
California state legislator Tom Ammiano argues that marijuana, by far the most lucrative crop with an estimated $14 billion in sales, could provide over a billion dollars of tax revenue in California alone.
There are, however, a few problems with these numbers. First, it is always tough to estimate what total sales are for any illegal substance. Good data just doesn’t exist in this area. Second, even if $14 billion is accurate, that’s the California sales total when pot is illegal. When a pothead scores a dimebag in Los Angeles, the high price is mostly a function of the illegality. He’s paying for the risks taken by the grower, the importers, and the dealers at each step of the marijuana process.
Currently, dealers risk not only jail, confiscation of property, and the burden of a criminal record, but they also face violence from other rival dealers. That’s why the markup on pot is so extreme.
Legalize pot, and perhaps 80% of its price vanishes. And since marijuana requires very little processing, unlike cocaine or heroin, the supply of pot could skyrocket if it were legalized, further driving the price down. Why pay for it when you can grow your own, tax-free?
It is also possible, though, that legalization would result in a surge in demand, since potential users who avoided it due to fear of incarceration or its high price might now indulge.
Advocates of decriminalization or legalization have reason to take cheer from many recent developments. Tax revenues, although not as high as some dreamers would wish, would certainly be substantial, and would replace the billions spent interdicting and confiscating marijuana, as well as imprisoning users and small time dealers. Legalizing marijuana would immediately remove millions of dollars in income from the international drug cartels that are making life hell in Mexico.
The tide of public opinion is slowly moving towards decriminalization. As polling expert Nate Silver recently pointed out, only 10% supported legalization in 1969, while at least 40% do so today. The younger you are, the more likely you are to have tried marijuana, and to support its legalization. NORML doesn’t have to persuade anyone to win; if they just wait for the anti-pot geezers to die, most Americans will favor legalization within a decade.
Or, they could wait for Obama to go back to the position he had when he was an obscure Illinois state legislator, just four years ago. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wQr9ezr8UeA
I don’t use pot, but I do believe that the tide of history is moving against our ridiculous and counterproductive ban on this relatively harmless substance. The question is not will we decriminalize, but when?
Jeremy D. Mayer is the author of “American Media Politics in Transition” (McGraw Hill, 2007) and an associate professor and director of the master’s program in public policy at George Mason University in Arlington, Va.