Nothing about Nadene Herndon's careful diction or earnest manner evokes the word "pothead." The retired state policy analyst, a 58-year-old from Fair Oaks, has become a star of sorts by appearing in a commercial as a marijuana consumer who — yes — wants to pay taxes.
Hers is the latest salvo in the one of the America's oldest culture wars: the effort to legalize marijuana. This time, the battle turns on the state's desperate budget plight. The argument is that we can save California services by taxing pot. (See www.mpp.org/states/ california/we-want-to-pay-our- fair-share.html.)
Taxation is not the real argument — and the ad flirts with intellectual dishonesty. But it does begin a conversation. Herndon, who says she started legally using pot after a series of strokes three years ago, is essentially arguing for legalization, because it's very hard to tax something illegal. The Marijuana Policy Project, which sponsors the ad, says a tax could bring in $1 billion yearly.
For a state like California, facing a $26 billion budget deficit, this is no game-changer. Paying taxes, however, cements the payer in the world of respectability. A relationship with the Franchise Tax Board is tougher to end than a fixation with "American Idol."
Consider card rooms in San Jose. Once they agreed to pay substantial taxes — they contributed some $12 million to the general fund last year — they were safe. When city finances weakened, officials were more sympathetic with gambling.
"Nobody denies that marijuana is an enormous industry in California," says Bruce Mirken, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project. "If we are in such a budget crisis, it seems irrational to have this large industry off the grid."
You can see the political calculation here: We're not going to persuade social conservatives who still fear "reefer madness." But maybe if we clobber them over the head with the notion of saving thousands of teacher jobs, they'll wake up. At the very least, they'll have to justify the expense of not legalizing marijuana.
Of course, taxing marijuana is not quite like taxing alcohol. To collect any significant money, you have to regulate the source of its production. That's easier with alcohol, which takes more effort to produce. If everyone grows their own pot, the tax falls apart.
If you want to smoke pot in California, legally or illegally, you already can figure out a way. It doesn't take a lot to get a doctor's note to buy at a medical dispensary. I've met several people who enjoy the privilege, and they don't strike me as close to terminally ill or in deep pain.
(And yes, if you're asking, your columnist occasionally inhaled during his 20s and early 30s. It never did much for me.)
The real issue here is that the war on drugs has failed dismally. Despite all the raids on marijuana farms, tens of millions of Americans still smoke pot in violation of the law. The effort to stop it has become our generation's Prohibition, a futile waste of resources that only encourages criminal enterprise.
Given that, I support the bill introduced by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, that would legalize marijuana and regulate it like alcohol. This isn't a question of morality any more — or even of health because we allow tobacco and booze. It's simply acknowledging reality.
If that throws a few more bucks toward a beleaguered treasury, OK. But we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that our money problems will be over once folks buy pot over the counter.
By Scott Herhold
July 12, 2009