Will Voters “Legalize It?”

On Nov. 2, 2010, California will vote on Proposition 19, otherwise known as the Regulate, Control, and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010. Opinion polls throughout the year thus far show a split Californian population with those in favor of legalization having a very slight advantage.

Although those in favor of the legalization of marijuana do have an advantage in the polls, come Nov. 2 it will be a very close decision. Polls indicate a margin of only a few percent between those in favor and those opposed to Proposition 19.

Although many do support Proposition 19 on a purely ethical and moral standing, California’s fiscal situation is without a doubt the impetus for the legislation in the first place. The State Board of Equalization estimates that a $50 per ounce tax on marijuana sold will generate $1.4 billion in new tax revenue annually.

Given that California is currently $19 billion in debt, Proposition 19 has garnered much of its support in hopes of relieving that debt. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates that cannabis prohibition is costing the United States $7 billion annually in potential tax revenue. With a national deficit of over $13 trillion steadily rising, it seems the government could use every penny.

In California there is $14 billion in marijuana sales annually and our state is riding the bench on this massive market. Furthermore, California is spending its valuable tax money hunting down and prosecuting marijuana users. Former San Jose Police Chief Joseph McNamara says, “Like an increasing number of law enforcers, I have learned that most bad things about marijuana Ń  especially the violence made inevitable by an obscenely profitable black market Ń are caused by the prohibition, not by the plant.”

Proposition 19 limits purchases of marijuana to those over the age of 21, much like alcohol sales. Although outright legalization strikes many opponents as “giving up” a battle in the war against drugs, it is likely that legalization will help to prevent young children from early exposure to marijuana.

Oftentimes it is much easier for children to obtain marijuana than alcohol because, unlike supermarkets and liquor stores, drug dealers do not card minors. With legalization, marijuana will be sold in licensed establishments and not on street corners.

California’s prison system is already overburdened and overcrowded, meaning that many criminals are put back on the streets before their sentences are finished. Legalizing the use of marijuana would open up cells in prisons for violent offenders, rapists and those who truly need to be off of the streets. Those incarcerated for marijuana related offenses should be released early in many cases, not violent criminals.

Opponents of Proposition 19, such as Pleasant Hill Police Chief Pete Dunbar, believe that, “If proposition 19 passes, our workplaces and roadways will be in danger, we will not benefit economically, and a huge burden will be placed on law enforcement representatives as enforcement of the law will be confusing and in some cases, out of their control.”

When I first read this statement I was under the impression Chief Dunbar was describing our current situation. The sale and consumption of alcohol is legal, our state government is turning its back on billions of dollars of potential tax revenue, and our legal system is more confused than ever sorting federal and state laws for the use of medical marijuana for select individuals. Someone should ask Chief Dunbar what he has been smoking.

The current system for legal marijuana is poorly designed and allows anyone over the age of 18 to purchase marijuana legally providing they have a doctor’s note. This doctor’s recommendation is not hard to come by, simply take a walk down the Venice Beach boardwalk to see for yourself. The abundance of care-giving centers and doctors who issue easy to come by scripts have primed the public.

“[They are] no longer  outraged by the idea of legalization. And truth be told, there is just too much money to be made [from it],” San Francisco mayor Willie Brown said.

In Oakland, California, medical marijuana sales are already being taxed and the money is going to save libraries, parks and other public services that are in danger of being shut down due to our indebted state government.

It is time to wake up and smell the pot. California loves marijuana and Californians will smoke whether it is legal or not. 400,000 Californians currently smoke marijuana legally and another two million Californians smoke marijuana illegally. The real question here is whether or not California’s government wants to be a part of this booming industry, make some money, open up our prison system, and regulate a drug so widely used, and more difficult to abuse than alcohol, that many hesitate to even call it a “real” drug.

Alexander Gura is a fourth year political science major. He can be reached at  agura@uci.edu.