Ask the Experts: Should Uncle Sam Take a Toke to Fill His Coffers?
When in doubt, look to the founding fathers. That’s what we do in this country, isn’t it? We reference the Constitution in order to rationalize legal disputes, questions of fundamental rights, the role of the military, etc. We hold our leaders up to the standards set by the likes of Washington and Adams. And the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence are deeply ingrained in our collective psyche.
So, it only makes sense that we should look to the past for solutions to our country’s present economic woes, right? Well, what if I were to tell you that one of the ties binding our country's earliest leaders is made out of hemp?
Washington and Jefferson lived on hemp farms, and Adams was tied to the crop in writings as well. Why is this relevant? Well, many people out there think that we can save a lot of Benjamins by taking a page from Washington, Jefferson, and Adams' books, that legalizing and taxing certain greenery would save the country a lot of, well, green.
That’s right, we’re talking about marijuana (aka weed, pot, cheeba, grass, Mary Jane). Experts say the legalization of marijuana would save the U.S. more than $12 billion a year in prosecution and crime prevention costs alone as well as lead to a windfall of additional tax revenue and peripheral benefits.
“Modern cannabis law is quite similar to the prohibition era in that it enriches the most savage gangsters, criminalizes a significant number of otherwise law abiding citizens and deprives tax coffers of billions,” says James Quinn, a professor of Rehabilitation, Social Works and Addictions at the University of North Texas. “It is also a factor in police corruption and the growth of narco terror etc. in Mexico. ”
If such laws were to be eliminated, “An industry similar to the tobacco industry would arise to sell marijuana, to advertise on a national scale, to make big contributions to political campaigns and to lobby against any health and safety related regulation of the marijuana industry,” says Keith Humphreys, a professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. Also, marijuana prices would fall and marijuana use and addiction would therefore increase. Arrests for marijuana possession would drop, though they would not disappear as youth use would still be illegal as it is for alcohol. Governments would gain some modest revenue from taxation.”
In other words, there are advantages and disadvantages to both the current legislative landscape and the decidedly more liberal environment that proponents of legalization or decriminalization envision. All in all, according to the experts that we consulted, the basic dynamics boil down to the:
- Economics of the Issue: "Under legalization, the federal government and every state could collect taxes directly on marijuana sales—just like they do with tobacco today. It’s unclear exactly how much revenue could be raised from marijuana excise taxes, but it would measure in the billions of dollars per year,” says Carl Davis, a senior policy analyst with the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. “Legalization would also boost national and state income tax revenues. If producers and sellers of marijuana are operating in a regulated market as opposed to a black market, they would start paying income taxes on their earnings from marijuana sales. It’s also likely that legalization would shift some marijuana production out of Canada and Mexico and into U.S., which could boost income tax revenues as well."
Effect on Crime: "Black markets fuel organized crime, and are responsible for the deaths of countless innocents and the corruption of law enforcement, while turning otherwise law-abiding citizens into criminals,” says Randy Barnett, the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Legal Theory at the Georgetown University Law Center. “Legal marijuana is safer for everyone than illegal marijuana.”
Jeff Miron, a senior lecturer and director of undergraduate studies in economics at Harvard University, adds that “virtually all the negatives that prohibitionists blame on illegal drugs are the result of the prohibition of illegal drugs, not the drugs themselves. In particular, drug markets are violent because they are illegal. We don’t see drive by shooting in the coffee, alcohol, or tobacco markets."
Social Impact: "We don’t have a clue what the social cost of legalized marijuana are, so we cannot say with any certainty that they will or will not outweigh the benefit of tax revenue or other monetary savings. But just because we do not know what they are, does not mean they are zero – which is what is so commonly presumed by the average person,” according to Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, director of the Rand Corporation’s Bing Center for Health Economics.
“There is a tradeoff between a known cost of prohibition and an uncertain cost or benefit associated with legalization (that will definitely be impacted by the form of legalization that emerges). So this is a gamble, and people have different preferences about such gambles that are completely independent of the science regarding the harms. In another five years, we’ll know a lot more about the potential harms and benefits of marijuana use from the experiments that are currently going on now and the data being collected from them. But the policy is ahead of the science here."
Everyone has a different stance on the issue of marijuana, but regardless of our preconceived notions, it's clear that decriminalization or legalization would pay certain financial dividends. And considering the state of the economy as well as the country’s deficit, it’s clear that we need the money.
This is a tough and controversial issue, though, and it should not be taken lightly. There are myriad nuances that must be considered – the impact of legal changes on diplomatic treaties, to name one in particular – and many of them came to light in our discussions with experts on public policy, crime, economics, and health services.
You can find their very insightful and revealing comments below.
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