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Debunking The Call To Legalize Drugs

As published in San Diego News Network

by Steve Francis

Friday, June 19, 2009

This spring, drug legalization advocates cheered as a series of policy and public opinion victories seemed to suggest that California marijuana policy was ripe for a sea change. Taking a closer look reveals that the case for radical pot propagation is still irreparably flawed and lacks support among everyday people.

First, let me address some polling results that have been analyzed speciously. The findings from a Field Poll released in late April suggested a majority support among California voters (56%) for legalizing and taxing marijuana. Though these numbers have been hailed by legalization activist groups, they are more indicative of taxation preferences of poll respondents than their drug policy viewpoints. The pot tax question was one of a dozen proposed tax hikes asked on a budget balancing themed survey, which included a hypothetical “carbon tax” on jet fuel and a new surcharge on pornography sales. Not surprisingly, respondents expressed their disdain for tax hikes on themselves (by a near three-to-two margin), while strongly casting their loud support for “sin taxes” and those not perceived to affect everyday residents. What better way to balance Sacramento's ever-widening billion-dollar budget gap with taxes on a controlled substance that is not even legal?

The Field Poll was subsequently followed by a Zogby national poll in mid-May which found apparent support (52%) for “the government's effort to legalize marijuana.” However, the question was strongly influenced by a preceding statement, which is full of fallacies about the drug war. Zogby International had asked 3,937 American voters the following:

“Scarce law enforcement and prison resources, a desire to neutralize drug cartels and the need for new sources of revenue have resurrected the topic of legalizing marijuana. Proponents say it makes sense to tax and regulate the drug while opponents say that legalization would lead marijuana users to use other illegal drugs. Would you favor or oppose the government’s effort to legalize marijuana?”

It's not difficult to see that many Americans, if polled, would indicate their support for drug legalization if prompted this way. Surrendering to drug dealers and the billion-dollar international drug trade is not the fiscally conservative, tough-on-crime solution – quite the opposite. More crimes will be committed with legalized cannabis, just as more related crimes are committed in firearm and alcohol friendly nations than those that are not. Furthermore, consider that all controlled substances in our county (alcohol, tobacco, firearms, etc.) have grown to develop powerful legal, lobbying and political divisions that seek to reduce corporate liability, weaken regulations and influence public elections to increase profits and market share. Grievous harm and criminal acts inflicted under the influence of controlled substances occur without corporate accountability. Are Golden State citizens to expect anything less from a legitimized cannabis industry?

Taxing pot is not a feasible proposition. Legalization advocates must answer the fundamental question: how would taxes be realistically collected from a controlled substance that is - at its essence – a modicum of soil, a planter, and a weed? Remember that through Proposition 215, the 1996 state ballot measure that legalized medicinal marijuana in California, those with a physician's approval are free to cultivate marijuana plants; if we were only speaking of taxing processed pharmaceuticals with marijuana's active chemical compound, the outcome might be different. Raising a hypothetical cannabis tax could therefore encourage only more illicit cultivation, perpetuating the black market of illegal drugs.

Even if pot were somehow relatively simple to tax, prior experience suggests its revenue would be greatly outweighed by new taxpayer obligations. According to a report released by the Marin Institute last summer, the total economic cost of alcohol use is $38 billion annually, with $8.3 billion shouldered by government agencies for health care treatment of alcohol-caused illnesses and injuries, crime costs, traffic incidents, and reduced worker productivity. The $1.5 billion in sale tax revenues from annual state alcoholic beverage purchases, along with more than $360 million in state excise taxes and industry fines and fees only cover a mere 22% of total government costs, and there’s every reason the public should expect the same result with legalizing marijuana.

Still, pot advocates were emboldened by the end of San Diego County's refusal (and the refusal of nine other counties) to enforce California's medical marijuana law, after the U.S. Supreme Court failed to hear the municipality's last appeal that Proposition 215 violated federal drug laws in our federalist form of jurisprudence. This was preceded by the U.S. Attorney General's policy shift that federal raids on medicinal marijuana dispensaries will cease. What San Diego residents can expect now is a swelling of new cannabis dispensaries in residential neighborhoods and other areas not restricted by local ordinances. As recent reports indicated, Los Angeles, which has enforced Proposition 215 for over a decade, now has more dispensaries (600+) than Starbucks coffee shops and McDonald's restaurants. If this could happen in lax LA, then why not San Diego?

Our state shouldn't consider changes in drug policy when we are unable to treat the drug addicts we already have. According to a recent poll of 505 California adults commissioned by, 45% of state residents have tried marijuana, and of those who have abused drugs in the past year, nearly half (42%) stated they were not ready to stop using. Our limited public health dollars are better spent upon bringing these addicts into treatment. False restrictions on legalized pot use, such as a minimum smoking age, won't deter teenagers and other young people from dangerously experimenting with the drug; the poll found that of those state residents that have tried marijuana, 51% first experimented before they turned eighteen years of age.

Legalizing marijuana is a solution to a problem that doesn't exist. San Diego families are safer under a nation that is committed to fighting the social ills that exist today, rather than endorsing new ones that we can live without.