Marijuana laws are complicated – several states have legalized medical marijuana, while the federal government continues its blanket prohibition on the cultivation, sale, and possession of marijuana. The federal government is still perfectly free to arrest and prosecute people for growing and selling medical marijuana, even if it’s completely legal under the laws of the states they live in. The Obama Administration has directed the Department of Justice to cease prosecutions of people who grow medical marijuana in compliance with state law, leading to an uneasy and paper-thin truce between growers and users of medical marijuana, and the federal government.
If the backers of an initiative headed to the November ballot in California get their way, the legal status of medical marijuana might get a little bit more complicated, at least when examining the relationship between federal and state marijuana laws. California’s Secretary of State is expected to certify for placement on the November ballot an initiative which would essentially legalize the recreational use of marijuana in California. The blogs have gone crazy over this, and with good reason. This is kind of a big deal.
Nowhere in the U.S. is the recreational use of marijuana legal. If this initiative passes, it will be legal for anyone who is 21 years old or older to buy and use marijuana. The sale of marijuana will be tightly regulated, and vendors will likely have to obtain licenses to sell it.
Perhaps more importantly (and the reason I think this initiative may actually have more than a snowball’s chance in Hell of passing), every legal sale of marijuana in California will be taxed. Marijuana, whether we like it or not, is a multi-billion dollar industry. It’s obvious that there’s a demand for the product, and people are meeting that demand. We’re simply seeing market forces at work. As a result, massive amounts of revenue are being generated from the sale of marijuana, all of which is going untaxed.
Given the current state of the California budget, the temptation to tap into a potentially-huge source of tax revenue must be quite strong, indeed. However, if this initiative passes, the government will have to be careful to not set the taxes on marijuana so high that legal marijuana is more expensive than illegal marijuana.
Anyone who’s been on a college campus or to a Phish concert can tell you that marijuana is readily available to just about anyone who wants to seek it out. From that fact, it follows that the “infrastructure” for the illegal cultivation and sale of marijuana is already firmly in place. If legalized marijuana (whose base market price will likely be significantly less than illegal marijuana, given the lower risk involved in selling it) is taxed to the point that it’s cheaper to get it illegally, people will probably continue to do so, just as they do today.
But even with a relatively low tax rate on marijuana, it should be a huge relief for a cash-strapped budget.
Of course, California legalizing marijuana won’t do anything about the fact that it’s still illegal under federal law, at least not directly. If this initiative passes and becomes law, we’ll likely still see arrests of growers and sellers in California by federal authorities.
However, if the legalization of marijuana doesn’t create any social problems beyond the ones that abuse of the drug already causes, while at the same time raising massive amounts of tax revenue for the state, and reducing the strain on the state’s prison system by reducing the number of drug offenders sent to prison, we’ll likely see other states follow suit, which might eventually cause the federal government to realize that it’s on the wrong side of history, and end its prohibition on marijuana. Of course, if this ever happens, it will probably be decades from now.
Another potential benefit of this law is a long-term reduction in California’s prison population. California is currently in the process of releasing 6,500 inmates from its prisons, due to budget constrains, and overcrowding so severe that it puts the safety of corrections workers and prisoners in danger.
Perhaps if fewer non-violent drug offenders were in prison in the first place, California would not have had this problem. LegalMatch case data from the last few months indicate that nearly a third of the alleged drug crimes in California involve marijuana. Considering the number of illegal drugs in existence, for a single one to account for almost a third of arrests is quite significant.
While I don’t pretend to know what effects legalization of marijuana will have on the state of California, I personally think that it’s at least worth a try, especially given its potential to raise tax revenue, reduce strain on the prison system, and promote the idea that adults can make their own decisions.