Its budget meltdown has California taking a look at legalizing marijuana as a means to revive its depleted treasury. But common sense, not economic need, should persuade Americans it's past time for a sober look at our mad "reefer madness" laws.
The Golden State legislator pushing the idea, Tom Ammiano of -- plug in the appropriate joke -- San Francisco, says licensing and taxing legal marijuana production and sales would earn California $1.3 billion a year. His bill would legalize marijuana possession and use for adults 21 or older, license commercial farming of it and tax it at $50 an ounce.
A big problem: California can't do this on its own. The federal prohibition law would have to be changed for Sacramento to impose and collect the licensing fees and taxes. Given all the controversial financial and social engineering bills on its plate, Congress likely isn't eager to take on this contentious issue. A recent CBS News/New York Times poll found only 41 percent of Americans favor legalization. That's an improvement over the 34 percent in a 2002 CNN/Time poll, but still 52 percent are against it.
It would be best if Washington could leave this matter in the hands of states. Thirteen states have to some extent decriminalized marijuana. Massachusetts is the latest. Its voters last month eliminated criminal penalties for possession of small amounts.
A like number of states have humane laws allowing marijuana smoking by people with chronic or terminal diseases to combat pain and nausea. New Jersey could become the 14th since its state senate has approved a medicinal bill. In Illinois, medical marijuana legislation failed in a close vote last year; bills already have been introduced in both houses of the General Assembly.
And, in a bow to state discretion, the Obama administration says it will not continue the Bush administration's policy of having U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officers raid medical marijuana dispensaries. That reflects the simple fact a huge part of America thinks a medical ban is cruel and prohibition in general is silly.
Marijuana, however undesirable some might view it, is not much, if any, different in its effects than alcohol and should be treated the same. And Ammiano has a point: A 2005 study endorsed by the late Milton Friedman and 530 other economists found legal regulation would save the nation $7.7 billion in enforcement costs and bring in up to $6.2 billion in taxes.
Beyond that are the issues of the terrible crime drug prohibition inflicts on mostly minority neighborhoods in big cities and the narco-terrorism raging in countries where criminals and poor people simply produce a product in huge demand in America.
Narco violence and corruption along our border threaten to make Mexico a failed state. Drug cartels issued an ultimatum to one police chief: Resign or see your officers killed. After several were murdered, he quit. Other officials have joined the cartels. One former police chief smuggled a ton of marijuana into Texas. Cartels extort protection money from businesses and even forced teachers in one town to hand over their Christmas bonuses. Six-thousand people were killed in drug-related violence last year. The U.S. Justice Department calls Mexican gangs the "biggest organized crime threat to the United States."
The day may not be far off when Americans conclude, as they did with Prohibition in the 1930s, that violence associated with the marijuana ban is worse than the drug's social ills. Some will raise the slippery slope argument that legalization opens the way to decriminalizing hard drugs like heroin and cocaine. Maybe we would have that discussion if legal marijuana works out, but saying yeah to one doesn't mean saying yes to the other.
Marijuana prohibition no longer makes sense, if it ever did. For the record, my recreational chemical of choice is alcohol. After the sun sets, I like to enjoy a glass of wine or scotch. Why shouldn't my neighbor, if so inclined, be able to relax with a joint?
BY STEVE HUNTLEY
March 3, 2009