Why is weed still illegal at all?
April 26, 2010 7:44 AM   Subscribe

Will somebody please explain marijuana prohibition? What arguments are actually persuading the people who vote for it? Do any of them actually make sense? Are there special interests behind the initiatives to keep it illegal? There must be real, solid reasons you can't buy weed in CVS yet, but I can't even fathom what they are.

The Justice Department seriously wants me to believe stuff like this:
"Fact 1: We have made significant progress in fighting drug use and drug trafficking in America. Now is not the time to abandon our efforts.

Fact 3: Illegal drugs are illegal because they are harmful.

Fact 4: Smoked marijuana is not scientifically approved medicine. Marinol, the legal version of medical marijuana, is approved by science.
Forgetting that "approved by science" sounds like something a second-rate webcomic would put on a t-shirt, these statements are in no way true or even logical.

So like, what? Do important people really still believe it's Satan's weed? Even if public health were a concern I can't really imagine our government would fight so hard for something only in the public interest. Is it the pharmaceutical lobby and private prison contracts? I'd totally buy that, but wouldn't completely legalizing weed make an unfathomable pile of money?

Bonus question! Why isn't everybody else in the world legalizing dope and making serious benjamins? I mean, I imagine the US passes around goodies to countries who stay tight on it, but what are they?

What is actually holding this up?
posted by borkingchikapa to Society & Culture (35 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Fear of change, inertia, crap "Tough on Crime" mentalities, prison contractor lobbyists, jackbooted DAs, politicians who don't want to be seen as dopers, etc etc. The only way it's going to get legal in this country is if there is a groundswell of mainstream popular support.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:52 AM on April 26, 2010

Considering that banning the drug makes the prices higher, the only conclusion that makes sense is that all governments are secretly in it for the money themselves.
posted by ijsbrand at 7:57 AM on April 26, 2010

What is actually holding this up?

- Put bluntly, a lot of people think that drugs are bad for society, bad for individuals and bad for keeping the peace. They look at the violence and crime tied to drugs and make a direct link between the two. Marijuana is lumped in as an "illegal drug" and, as a result, gets lumped in with all others.

- The politicians know that being pro-legalization is a hugely polarizing position to take and, as a result, they rarely take it. It's the kind of hot-button issue that will affect someone's voting choice by itself. The number of people who will avoid voting for you if you're pro-legalization is significantly higher than those who will come out to vote for you because of that position. Look at the demographics of marijuana use and the % who vote. You lose that fight every time in (virtually) every part of the country.

- Most people haven't got a nuanced philosophical position on drugs that can justify alcohol and prescription medication but doesn't justify other recreational drugs because, again bluntly, they just don't care. If you're not a pot smoker, you don't really care about the nuance because it doesn't apply to you. The logical incongruities of being pro-alcohol and anti-pot really don't bother most people because the legalization of marijuana isn't something they benefit from (unless it's indirect in the form of taxes) and is something they can see is going to hurt society.
posted by Hiker at 8:01 AM on April 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

Try to put a new business in suburbia - anything - in a lot that is already zoned commercial and I promise you, there will be people showing up at city hall with this woe unto Delphi act about the increased traffic and noise that will just destroy their neighborhood. Visit that with the strike tag and you'll have the first piece of the puzzle. It's different from what we have now and back in the eighties a guy on TV said it was bad, ergo....

Then there is what Burhanistan said. Even ask the question, "Why do we have our underwear in such a knot about this?" and your political opponents will cheerfully spin your comment into the moral equivalent of handing out heroin at the local preschool.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:04 AM on April 26, 2010

I have a friend who is strongly anti-drug. He lumps caffeine, nicotine, heroin, cannabis, and LSD all together in a nebulous category of "things that are harmful." He sincerely believes that his mind exists in some kind of pure, unaltered state and to take substances to change that is horrible and a de facto sign of emotional trauma and self-medicating. I don't know how common his mindset is, but I know he would not support legalization and is far more predisposed to accepting gov't sources of "drug abuse information" because of his beliefs.

So that's one datapoint - there are a lot of people like him who are totally unfamiliar with the expanded "mental space" that cannabis and particularly hallucinogens can promote and cannot fathom the kind of self-knowledge they engender.
posted by werkzeuger at 8:11 AM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

As for Fact 4 - Most natually occuring substances used in medicines are processed to get the scientifically approved kind. For example, when you have an infection and they give you penicillin, they give you a pill, not a piece of fungus ripped straight from the forrest. There's too many variables in straight from nature medicine as far as what other bacteria and stuff could be on it. If you are infection prone, the hospital will not even allow flowers in your room and you are not allowed to eat raw fruits or vegetables due to possible contaminats on them. Therefore, I don't see smokable marijuana ever being accepted as sound medicine. Thats in addition to the fact that smoking anything is bad for your lungs.

Why isn't it legal for recreational use like tobacco? Fear or the idea that drugs are morally bad. Bad stereotypes of people who smoke marijuana being lazy, stinky, fast food face stuffing, slow thinking losers (for reference, see movies). Maybe all MJ users should start acting like cowboys in the wild wild west? who knows...
posted by WeekendJen at 8:13 AM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Think of the children.

I have smoked lots and lots and lots of pot in my life, mostly when I was a teenager but occasionally since then. I'm all in favor of pot being legal. It is much safer than alcohol along many dimensions.

But I'm also a father, and that gives me pause. I don't want my son to smoke as much pot as I did. I would be concerned to have him grow up in a world awash in pot.

Now, I'm at the liberal, pot-appreciating end of the spectrum. I'm sure that many other parents feel much more strongly that they don't want their kids growing up in a society where there's lots and lots of pot around, even if it is safer than alcohol.
posted by alms at 8:14 AM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

The legal vices (booze and cigarettes) don't want the competition, and have had the money since the early 20th century to make sure Congress kept the competition illegal.
posted by COD at 8:15 AM on April 26, 2010

I'd totally buy that, but wouldn't completely legalizing weed make an unfathomable pile of money?

California is actually considering this right now to deal with their fiscal crisis.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:16 AM on April 26, 2010

It might be insightful to do some reading about the history of marijuana in the United States. Wikipedia is a decent start -- check out the articles on Harry Anslinger and the legal history of marijuana in the United States.

I'd also recommend the excellent book Reefer Madness, by Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser.

Now, I'm at the liberal, pot-appreciating end of the spectrum. I'm sure that many other parents feel much more strongly that they don't want their kids growing up in a society where there's lots and lots of pot around, even if it is safer than alcohol.

FYI, your kids already live in that society. There is lots and lots of pot around.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:22 AM on April 26, 2010

"the initiatives to keep it illegal"

There aren't initiatives to keep it illegal, there are initiatives to legalize it or decriminalize it. Under current US law, it is illegal by default and legalizing it requires major change. Any major legal change is hard to achieve. Lots of people vote against initiatives or other change by default, regardless of what the change would be.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:25 AM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

My mom. Who believes pretty much everything you see on the website. And my dad.

The thing about old people believing stuff like that is that they vote more reliably than younger people, and there are more of them. And they pay more taxes than your average pro-legalization twenty something, or even thirty something.

Catering to them gets people elected and generates money.

My mom and dad explain a lot of social and material weirdness. Enjoy, everyone.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:25 AM on April 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

There's no political upside to changing the status quo. The benefits are at a second and third remove; the potential harm to one's career is up close and personal.

Remember that irrational racist fear was a huge motivation behind the original prohibition of marijuana, especially in the US. Now it's just inertia, but the echoes of that original paranoia still survive. Pragmatic arguments for legalisation don't really matter here.

I hate to say it, but the most visible aspects of stoner culture probably don't help, either, from Cheech & Chong to Harold & Kumar and beyond. It's a classic case of a marginalised group -- in this case one that's at best in borderline legal territory -- embracing its marginalisation as a self-defence mechanism; you often see the same patterns in American bicycle culture.
posted by holgate at 8:29 AM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

1. It's sure to be a regulatory mess (who can grow it? who can sell it? to whom? what can they charge? what's the legal age? what's the legal dose? what are the legal ramifications for exceeding that dose? what's the legal dose to drive?)

2. It may not be an addictive chemical, but it's absolutely an addictive lifestyle that is very harmful to people. I'd imagine that for college students a graph of marijuana usage vs. GPA would be very damning. There aren't a lot of pro-legalization voices who aren't regular users themselves, which doesn't look good. Furthermore, enough people have crazy/bad experiences (and then stop using) to form a very powerful force of distrust.

3. American distaste of sloth. People in power may have smoked a lot of weed in college, but their careers certainly didn't take off because of it.

4. Simply put, why WOULD a politician put his or her ass on the line for this legislation? There aren't many politicians in government-- or other influential people-- who see legalization as a pressing moral issue. Politicians generally don't do things unless it'll benefit them, and there are too many ways legalization could go wrong (see #1) for them to risk it.

5. Medical marijuana legislation, while enormously beneficial to some, is a joke in California, where it's an open secret that anyone with $100 can walk into a doctor (who, by the way, has mysteriously ceased to practice other forms of medicine) and come away with a prescription. If legalization forces want to be taken seriously, they need to clean up their act.

6. I've met a lot of "prominent" people in the pro-marijuana movement, and they're all a joke compared to even run-of-the-mill lobbyists in other industries. Their arguments are shoddy and their presentation is terrible, and they refuse to engage with serious, thoughtful, friendly criticism. A dash of media training would help a LOT.
posted by acidic at 8:29 AM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

7. I think many more people enjoyed their first alcohol experience than their first marijuana experience. It's the nature of the drug, not to be discounted. Then again, if alcohol weren't legal I'm not sure efforts to legalize it would succeed, either.
posted by acidic at 8:33 AM on April 26, 2010

Another point - the illegal status of pot means that there are lots of healthy, creative, productive pot smokers who are not "out" about it. The illegal status keeps them from open legalization advocacy.
posted by werkzeuger at 8:33 AM on April 26, 2010

I'm sure you know someone who's perma-baked themselves through heavy pot use. I know alcohol, cigarettes, prescribed drugs etc. all have some pretty serious long term effects from abuse too. I'm just saying pot isn't exactly harmless.

That said, I'll agree that the amount of money spent by the police on pursuing, charging and incarcerating pot users and producers is out of proportion with any possible problems caused by said people. In the end, I guess the gov. shouldn't pretend to be our collective Mommy. Go ahead, legalize the darn weed.
posted by Iggley at 8:36 AM on April 26, 2010

Back in the 60's, the US outlawed essentially all recreational drugs, not because they were dangerous (some are, some are not), but because they are recreational. That's the fundamental thing to keep in mind here. The State decided that the very act of using a chemical recreationally was harmful to the interests of the citizenry.

Flash forward 50 years. We now know a great deal about how these drugs work and how they effect the body. Many drugs, such as marijuana, have been discovered to be much more benign than was initially assumed, and has even been found to have some medicinally-useful properties. But note that this doesn't change the intial justification for drug prohibition: marijauna is principally a recreational drug, and the act of using a recreational drug is considered harmful in itself. This is a "moral" issue, not a scientific or medical issue.

Only two drugs were spared prohibition, alcohol and nicotine. A big reason for this was no doubt that it was not politically feasible to eliminate substances which were at the time so well entrenched in everyday American society. But it's also important to keep in mind the cultural forces at work. Alcohol and nicotine were drugs used by the right kinds of people (politicians, businessmen, and other upstanding members of the citizenry), whereas other recreational drugs were primarily associated with nondominant cultures (youth, minorities, antiestablishment types). Put this way, it's much easier to see how the moral justification breaks down into issues of power and control.
posted by dephlogisticated at 8:38 AM on April 26, 2010 [6 favorites]

Then again, if alcohol weren't legal I'm not sure efforts to legalize it would succeed, either.

This is a very good point.

Worth considering, too, the history of so-called 'legal highs' - for example BZP and mephedrone - which have been banned in the past few years. In these cases, the drugs were banned because there was some evidence that they weren't absolutely safe. Obviously, showing that something is absolutely safe is a very high hurdle to clear. What politician is going to risk their career supporting legalisation of something that can kill - even if it only kills 1 in a million users? (OK, that argument doesn't even apply to pot, but replace 'kill' with 'potentially enhance the risk of schizophrenia' or something).

Alcohol, being already legal, gets a pass on it. Though even then: when BZP was banned in New Zealand, journalist John Campbell asked the Minister of Health: "what about alcohol, that's dangerous too. Why don't you ban that?". The response "Don't tempt me, John." I suspect plenty of politicians would be happy with more regulation of alcohol, too.

(Then there's the point that most politicians are fairly ignorant about drugs, too. The issue matters to you, so you research and learn the facts. For them, it's just one of many issues, so they don't).
posted by Infinite Jest at 8:43 AM on April 26, 2010

Then again, if alcohol weren't legal I'm not sure efforts to legalize it would succeed, either.

Only two drugs were spared prohibition, alcohol and nicotine.


Back in the 60's, the US outlawed essentially all recreational drugs

That's not how it happened.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:44 AM on April 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

Are there special interests behind the initiatives to keep it illegal?

The drug smugglers want it to stay illegal.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:45 AM on April 26, 2010

Bonus question! Why isn't everybody else in the world legalizing dope and making serious benjamins?

With regard to the Far East, many Asian countries have a history riddled with addiction, crime and illegal importation of drugs. China struggled with opium addiction for years, culminating in anti-importation laws that were broken by British smugglers--and leading up to the Opium Wars of the 19th century.

Japan, at the end of WWII, was home to large stockpiles of amphetamines. These entered the open market via the aid of the Yakuza. Post-war amphetamine was known as Philopon (ヒロポン) in the 1950s, and kindled a wave of crime and addiction that continues to this day. (Coincidentally, or perhaps not so coincidentally, methamphetamine was first synthesized by a Japanese chemist).

These countries, and their neighbors in Asia, have shouldered a burden in addiction and crime that, arguably, eclipses similar drug problems in most countries in the West. It's not surprising that penalties are stiff for possession, and painfully harsh for smuggling (as many smugglers languishing on death row in China can attest).

Marijuana, ironically, along with hemp, was grown and consumed in large parts of Asia until recently. But it shares the unhappy fate of being lumped in with other drugs in Asia as well. Few Japanese or Chinese, either politicians or people on the street, pause to reflect on the difference between the opium, pot, and meth "highs." They're all equally dangerous, all equally addictive, and all equally feared. In Japan, high-profile marijuana busts appear regularly in the papers, and are often for laughably small amounts--sometimes fractions of a gram. And the Japanese prime minister, when asked about the death sentences meted out by the Chinese government to several Japanese who had smuggled heroin into China, replied tersely by saying that "foreign countries have different laws, and there's little we can do about them."
posted by Gordion Knott at 8:45 AM on April 26, 2010

2. It may not be an addictive chemical, but it's absolutely an addictive lifestyle that is very harmful to people. I'd imagine that for college students a graph of marijuana usage vs. GPA would be very damning.

This study suggests that marijuana use alone doesn't have a negative impact on GPA, particularly when alcohol use (which does negatively correlate with GPA) is accounted for.

More to the point, I'd highly recommend the documentary Grass, which gives a pretty firm history of marijuana legislation in the US.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:45 AM on April 26, 2010

For more on the politics angle, watch season 3 of The Wire. It deals with heroin and cocaine primarily, but it will give you an idea of how our good our political system is at destroying new ideas and stagnating change.

Politicians have been getting elected with the Tough on Drugs platform for decades now. They're not fixing anything, but they don't need to fix anything. In fact, if they did--somehow--manage to win the war on drugs then they'd have to go out and find a new issue to campaign with. Tough on Drugs is a simple and effective strategy for getting votes, so nobody about to drop that anytime soon. If you're not part of the solution then there's good money to be made being part of the problem, and if being part of the problem means elected office, well then...

California might do it, but lets be honest: (1) California is not the rest of America, and (2) who doesn't want a quick fix to a budget crisis?
posted by Hoenikker at 8:46 AM on April 26, 2010

I support marijuana legalization. That said, here are some reasons why pot remains illegal in America.

- Inertia. Things are the way they are. To change the policy now would be to introduce some pretty radical changes in the American economy at a contentious time. Entire divisions of the government will be closed or otherwise radically altered. New regulations and regulatory bodies will spring up. How will legalizing marijuana affect things? We just don't know. I think that, in the long run, it would be better, but what will happen in the transition period? From a purely psychological standpoint, it's much easier to deal with what you have than to venture into the unknown, and that's how many voters are going to process this issue - especially if they feel otherwise undecided about the issue.
- Pride. Most people do not want to admit that we, as a country, have been wrong about something.
- It's a hell of a lot easier to just not smoke pot than it is to make pot legalization into a viable political option.
- Pot has cultural baggage of something that teenagers, hippies, layabouts, and thugs smoke. As unfair as it is, making weed legalization your platform makes you look like the Rasta-hatted stoner politician. The attack ads practically write themselves.
- People like a winner. Pot legalization is a perennial loser. Even those who might otherwise support its legalization will feel that, since it's a loser issue, it might as well never get brought up. Is this cyclical and stupid? Oh, yes, yes it is cyclical and stupid.
- As said above, "think of the children." Parents are afraid that their kids will run out and get super-duper-high as soon as marijuana becomes legal. We can argue that this belief is not rational for a number of reasons - kids already have access to pot, their parents' generation smoked a ton of pot as well, etc. - but plenty of otherwise smart, normal people have all kinds of seemingly irrational beliefs. Besides, there is a tremendous gulf from the policy position that weed should be legal to the personal position that you yourself would want your 15-year-old to be getting high - even though your 15-year-old could do that now, for all you care. (Incidentally, I remember, as a teen, explaining to adults that it was much easier to get pot than it was to get alcohol - such disbelief, from some people.)
- Pot might be very tricky to regulate as a commercial crop. It grows easily. An amateur can grow a pot plant in his or her own home. How will companies compete against those who grow weed in their own homes? Then again, my girlfriend grows her own basil, and yet McCormick's Herbs & Spices still hums along.
- Further, it is extremely difficult to control precisely how much THC and what-have-you is in any particular variety of pot. Those who tout the benefits of medical marijuana have to deal with the fact that it's almost impossible to control the strength and attributes of various weed varieties - at least, in comparison with how one can have various strengths of aspirin pills.

(On the medical marijuana score, a tangent: there was a good point brought up by a doctor in the fitfully amusing documentary Super High Me. He said that, while he thinks weed is mostly harmless and should be legalized, that he could never recommend marijuana as actual medicine. Weed is too variable, with regard to its own strength and with regard to how each person individually processes weed, and the various means of intake are too variable, for a doctor to be able to say with a straight face that you should inhale the smoke of a plant to alleviate some symptoms of various diseases. You may agree or disagree with that doctor's particular professional opinion, but the fact of the matter is that he is not the only doctor who feels that way. Medical marijuana is not a bad idea, but it always was sort of a back door ploy for total marijuana legalization. Not that there's anything wrong with that.)
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:50 AM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

It was made illegal through a combination of race-baiting and protecting the Hearst pulp mill industry. Hearst owned a significant portion of the nation's paper production, and all his equipment was set up to work on trees. He saw industrialized hemp as a serious competitor to his fortune. So, since also owned a newspaper, he cranked out a bunch of "Marijuana is bad for you and you can tell because blacks and latinos smoke it! Now imagine your pure white sons and daughters falling in with jazz-depraved dope fiends!" articles and got the stuff banned.

This is a dramatic oversimplification, but I'm pretty sure it's correct on its face.
posted by KathrynT at 8:53 AM on April 26, 2010

PhoBWanKenobi, that "study" is laughable, beginning with the yellow background and ending with the lack of journal publication, but more importantly it's an undergraduate's term paper written with questionable methods, background, and generally zero understanding about how drug research ought to be done. I am not, but anyone interested in pursing the weed-GPA question is welcome to peruse these results, with the understanding that many if not most studies are deeply flawed (you'll see plenty of correlation between GPA and marijuana, with less understanding about which affects which).

Researchers are slowly becoming interested in running trials with formerly-taboo drugs (I've participated in ketamine and salvia studies; there's less on marijuana but MAPS has some info). These efforts should be encouraged, and legalization advocates shouldn't rely on jokey research to further their cause. It may convert people who are already high, but not convince any serious voters/businesses/public officials.
posted by acidic at 9:05 AM on April 26, 2010

With regards cannabis, I fall into the libertarian end of the spectrum--let people do what they want to do. I tried it, I did inhale, but it just isn't the type of recreation I enjoy. But, I think there would be far more utility to legalizing--not just decriminalizing--cannabis in the US.

The reasons above for why there isn't a critical mass for legalizing are all accurate as far as they strike me--it is far easier for politicians to posture on a Just Say No platform than to effect any real changes. But as more states sink into financial straits--as my home state--I have to believe that they will at least take a look at the potential revenue stream outweighing the negative platforms.

I think Arizona was one of the first states, many years ago, to add Marijuana Revenue Stamps to their list of tax collections. It was a way of using tax evasion as another way of nailing dealers. (That is, if you were caught selling pot & you didn't have proof of your revenue stamps, you were de facto guilty of evading taxes, depriving the state of revenue)...of course, no one in their right mind would apply to buy "pot stamps," and I don't need to draw a diagram as to why.

I don't think, though, that it is a leap to start to collect those revenues, start to "normlize" the growers from Humboldt County, maybe even cut down on some of the weirdness in Mexico (though I seriously doubt that marijuana is the primary drug behind the throne there).

And for those who thought/think that this issue only dates back to the 60s, ludwig_van answered that above. No lesser luminaries than Fiorello LaGuardia and William F. Buckley also weighed in, in favor of decriminalization at least.
posted by beelzbubba at 9:23 AM on April 26, 2010

wouldn't completely legalizing weed make an unfathomable pile of money?

Firstly: Some studies have suggested that alcohol costs the US economy $134 billion a year - i.e. $430 a person. A scottish study put the figure at £900 ($1400) per person, per year.

If weed use became more common after legalisation, that could have a cost to the economy which would be hard to estimate. Hence, the direct tax revenue would have to be offset against the costs to the economy from increased use.

Secondly: In the UK, where cigarettes are heavily taxed (sometimes at 500%, so 80% of the retail price is tax), there are sometimes problems with cigarettes being imported without tax being paid, then sold at 200% profit, which is still a big discount.

Right now there is a substantial black-market weed delivery infrastructure in place. Attempts to regulate this have failed, and most weed users know it.

So if weed was legalised and taxed, weed users would have a choice to either buy it legally at a high price, or buy it illegally at a low price. Given that current weed users have no problems or worries about buying weed illegally, and the supply infrastructure is already in place for this to happen, they might not choose to pay the higher price.

IMHO a more sensible strategy would be to legalise weed and start out with a low rate of tax, so as to make sure illegal suppliers switch to be legal or quit the business. Then after about five years once all the illegal infrastructure has fallen into disrepair, then you start increasing the taxes. And needless to say, this wouldn't work if politicians announced this was the plan from the start.

In other words: It might make a bunch of tax money eventually, but not immediately.
posted by Mike1024 at 10:26 AM on April 26, 2010

Are there special interests behind the initiatives to keep it illegal?

Current growers in Northern California are against legalization, worried that commercial growers would put them out of business.
posted by exphysicist345 at 7:12 PM on April 26, 2010

I'm in Denver, Colorado. Medical Marijuana is legal here with a doctor's prescription and a license from the state. My understanding, from reading and talking to those who are "legal", is that it is incredibly, ridiculously easy to get a prescription (the licenses from the state are crazy back logged but I think that is just a bureaucratic money making step for the state).

Dispensaries are popping up all over Denver like crazy. I swear I see a new one anytime I take a route out of the ordinary across town - for instance I just saw a new one half a mile from where I live to the North, I learned of a dispensary a mile to the south from a friend who is legal, etc...
I don't know if this is what it looks like when marijuana is getting close to getting legal for anyone but I can tell you this is an incredible change from just a year ago. Though, now there is a reform bill which could change the business/treatment...
posted by fieldtrip at 7:51 PM on April 26, 2010

Pot, like other drugs, does have potential for abuse. It does seem to encourage slackitude in people who use it a whole lot. It seems to be a bit less dangerous than alcohol.

I think it should be legal. I vote. Some of the people advocating for it exemplify the least good of its values. With the economic crunch, the tax on legalized pot should be enticing to politicians.
posted by theora55 at 8:34 PM on April 26, 2010

Firstly: Some studies have suggested that alcohol costs the US economy $134 billion a year - i.e. $430 a person. A scottish study put the figure at £900 ($1400) per person, per year.

If weed use became more common after legalisation, that could have a cost to the economy which would be hard to estimate. Hence, the direct tax revenue would have to be offset against the costs to the economy from increased use.

One part of your argument does make sense: the cost to the economy would be hard to estimate. The underground cannabis market is indeed hard to estimate. But your examples using alcohol and cigarettes really don't help in estimating what that cost would be.

First, to alcohol. The costs from alcohol are because of the very demonstrable problems from addiction, treatment, and of course, also the cost to drunk driving. I am not aware of any comparable studies in the states or countries with substantial case histories (they are probably out there, but I don't have a stake in this argument, so I haven't looked for them), but I think we would hear about them more often than we do; of course, we have two sensational and terrible tragedies blamed on train engineers who incurred fatalities in accidents while allegedly smoking cannabis. Those would not change my opinion of legalization--I don't think those engineers should have been under the influence of any mood altering agent, whether alcohol, cannabis, or other. But I am skeptical that the health problems that might be incurred from legalizing cannabis would amount to a drop in the bucket against alcohol, or for that matter, tobacco.

Second to the market pricing example. I am not aware of any present scheme that would introduce a taxation level equivalent to the UK's taxation on tobacco, which, unless I miss my guess, evolved over a substantial period of time. It would neither make sense to present barriers to legal growers (as you rightly argue) and so the suggestion that any legalization scheme would start at 80% seems to be out of left field. (Sorry for the American baseball reference; read "thin air" if you will.) It also makes no sense that if there were a market price for legal cannabis, that the underground market would somehow sell inexpensively. I also reject any notion that "current weed users have no problems or worries about buying weed illegally." I have to believe that the costs to bring this product to market figure in some sort of risk factor for being in business. If, in the scheme toward legalization and taxation, there were substantial enforcement efforts to stem the illegal trade, there would be a flood of applications to become legitimate suppliers, especially if there were any type of an amnesty.

Apparently, from the anecdotal evidence in Colorado and California, legalization occurs without the collapse of the social system, the health system, or the extracurricular trade.

So, in sum, I am not sure what the point of your argument was other than that there should be a low taxation point to begin with and that the costs to the economy are hard to estimate. I still think that cannabis should be legalized, and I think it would be an overall plus to the economies of states that do so. Again, from anecdotal evidence, the dispensaries are enjoying a booming trade in California & Colorado. Obviously there is a wider public demand for the product than the prohibitionists would consider, and if legally available and treated as a social intoxicant rather than a scheduled narcotic, we would not only have a boon in taxation revenues, but perhaps America could stop spending so much money on incarcerating low level cannabis smokers or sellers. That, too, would improve our economy.
posted by beelzbubba at 8:10 AM on April 27, 2010

So, in sum, I am not sure what the point of your argument was other than that there should be a low taxation point to begin with and that the costs to the economy are hard to estimate.

Allow me to clarify; I was responding only to borkingchikapa's question as to whether legalising weed would make an unfathomable pile of money. I didn't intend to say anything about whether or not weed should be legalised, which I believe is a moral rather than a financial matter.

My first observation was that one would not profit from making $300 per person per year in weed tax if you have to spend an extra $400 per person per year cleaning up side effects of increased weed usage. As the costs of increased weed usage are hard to estimate, it's hard to know what the eventual costs would be.

My second observation was that, as one would have to start with a low rate of tax on weed, one could not immediately realise tax revenues comparable to those from alcohol and tobacco (I will admit that I don't know much about US alcohol and tobacco tax rates; only that weed tax rates and hence revenues would have to start low compared to UK alcohol and tobacco tax rates/revenues)

In summary, the point of my post was to illustrate some reasons that legalising pot might make a more fathomable pile of money than one might at first estimate.
posted by Mike1024 at 4:09 PM on April 27, 2010

I think most things I might have added to the answer have been covered. However, cnbc just did a big interactive project about the legalization issue that you might find interesting.
posted by maniactown at 6:15 PM on April 27, 2010

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