Jacob Sullum / July 28, 2010

These Buds Are for You

A group called Public Safety First warns that “the pre-tax price of marijuana could substantially decline” and “consumption of marijuana would increase” if Californians vote to legalize the drug in November. Well, yes, that’s sort of the idea.

Proposition 19, a California ballot initiative that would legalize cultivation and possession of cannabis for personal use while authorizing local governments to allow commercial production and sale, would move marijuana into a legal, regulated market, transforming criminals into consumers. Lower prices and increased use mean greater consumer satisfaction, something that should be welcomed rather than feared.

But Public Safety First, which is running the campaign against Proposition 19, is all about fear. Its website features photos of a doctor, a teacher, a judge and a cop with joints dangling ridiculously from their mouths, suggesting prohibition is the only thing that prevents people from getting stoned at work. It says “bus drivers, forklift operators, hospital technicians, crossing guards who might be stoned could be coming to your community.”

Yes, these people might be stoned, but that is true whether or not Proposition 19 passes. And even if marijuana disappeared tomorrow, all of these people could come to work drunk. Yet Public Safety First is not campaigning for a return to alcohol prohibition, because it understands that workplace intoxication can be addressed through less sweeping measures that do not penalize responsible consumers for the sins of a reckless minority.

If we remove the terror-tinted lenses of Proposition 19’s opponents, we start to see the benefits of treating marijuana more like alcohol. A recent RAND Corp. study estimates that the retail price of legal marijuana would be less than one-fifth the black-market price. Based on numbers in the RAND report, that translates into annual savings of $5 billion or so for current consumers – money that would be available for other uses.

Some of those savings would be sucked up by sales and excise taxes on newly legal marijuana. The California Legislative Analyst’s Office recently projected that “state and local governments could eventually collect hundreds of millions of dollars annually in additional revenues” as a result of Proposition 19.

Lower prices, greater convenience and the elimination of legal risk can be expected to boost marijuana consumption. RAND considers it plausible that the number of current users would double, to about 4 million, or 14 percent of California’s adult population. These new users also would receive a big consumer benefit, enjoying a wide variety of cannabis products that are worth as much to them as they are willing to pay – on the order of $1 billion a year.

Continuing to look at this from a consumer’s perspective, we need to consider not just the law enforcement money saved by the state of California (around $300 million a year, according to RAND), but the arrest-related costs that pot smokers no longer have to bear. About 75,000 people are arrested on marijuana charges in California each year, the vast majority for simple possession. While they typically do not spend much time behind bars, they face legal expenses and the lifelong handicap of a criminal record, costs that may dwarf the money spent on enforcement.

Those costs fall disproportionately on black people. A recent study by Queens College sociologist Harry Levine found that blacks in California’s 25 largest counties are two to four times as likely as whites to be busted for marijuana possession, even though survey data indicate they are no more likely to smoke pot. The California NAACP cited these racially skewed numbers when it endorsed Proposition 19.

Public Safety First, of course, does not care what happens to pot smokers, whom it depicts as public menaces. But since research indicates that marijuana does not impair driving ability nearly as much as alcohol does, more pot smoking, if accompanied by less drinking, could actually improve public safety. The legal availability of a less dangerous intoxicant would benefit the general public as well as consumers.


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