It’s time to take a good, hard look at marijuana prohibition.
Despite society’s most assiduous efforts over nearly a century to extirpate marijuana, and the consumption of untold billions of the taxpayers’ dollars to wage a war against it, marijuana is ubiquitous in our culture, and ineradicable from it. That’s not a 900-pound gorilla in the corner; it’s a naked emperor.
So what do we do?
We can ignore the economic crisis and keep throwing good money after bad, passing this war along to the next generation to wage and pay for, or we can look for a better way to curb drug abuse, protect the public health and safety and eliminate the crime and violence associated with illicit trafficking.
And, while we’re at it, we can save a lot of money currently being squandered in the earnest but futile attempt to eradicate marijuana from our culture, and, oh, by the way, raise copious amounts of new revenue. Rough estimates suggest that the prospective revenue is at least what casinos are expected to produce, without the need to destroy any forests and pave them into parking lots.
Whether marijuana is a good thing or a bad thing is irrelevant to this discussion. Even if it were as dangerous as its worst critics allege, that would not alter the facts of its ubiquity and indelibility. The exaggerated claims of marijuana’s harm only raise the questions of why the sky isn’t falling and why the bodies aren’t piling up.
The question in 2009 is whether we keep the prohibition laws in place or repeal them, replacing them with a system of regulation and taxation, with controls over cultivation, purity, distribution and sales, and age limits on purchases.
There’s a big problem with that suggestion, however, and it’s not that it’s a radical idea. Privately, people readily agree that we shouldn’t be arresting people for pot — growing it, selling it or using it — and ought to be looking seriously at the revenue potential. The problem is they say it only in private, fearful that speaking up in public about the wrongheadedness of the marijuana laws would put their job, security clearance or custody of their children in serious jeopardy. It’s a simple matter of priorities, and they have theirs right.
The immediate struggle is not to legalize marijuana, but to legalize discussion about it.
Rhode Island has made an extraordinary beginning. By a formal resolution adopted this past July, the Rhode Island Senate set up a commission to make a thorough study and issue a full report on the efficacy of marijuana prohibition. The commission is charged with, among other tasks, evaluating whether prohibition has kept marijuana from the reach of children, whether the illicit earnings from marijuana fund organized crime or drug cartels and whether prohibition begets crime and violence instead of preventing it. The commission is also to look at the revenue potential of a regulated, taxed system of cultivation, distribution and sale. Watch for the report of their findings and recommendations in late January 2010.
In California, three legalization initiatives are working their way to the 2010 ballot, and a regulate-and-tax bill is pending in the state Legislature. Nobody is snickering, not least the governor, who has urged serious consideration of this approach. A similar bill, called “An Act to Regulate and Tax the Cannabis Industry,” will be considered by the Revenue Committee in the Massachusetts Legislature this week.
Marijuana’s detractors are fond of pointing out how marijuana has changed over the years, increasing in potency. I don’t know about that, but I do know that the marijuana issue has certainly changed. For generations, marijuana law reform advocates have pointed to the injustice of prohibition. Now they are also pointing to the obsolescence and inaffordability of prohibition.
Marijuana is here to stay. Let’s get serious, and get real, about it.
Richard M. Evans is an attorney in Northampton. To reach him, and for more information on the proposal to regulate and
tax marijuana, go to
Richard M. Evans
October 14, 2009