In the United States, someone is arrested for a marijuana offense every 36 seconds. More arrests for marijuana possession occur each year than for all violent crimes combined. And yet, marijuana use has skyrocketed 4000 percent since it was banned in 1937. Something isn’t working, and perhaps the money spent prosecuting marijuana offenses would be better spent elsewhere.
If you haven’t already seen it, you may have heard that a TV ad is airing in California that pushes for legalizing and taxing marijuana to help close the $26.3 billion budget deficit. In the ad, Nadene Herndon from Fair Oaks, who has been a marijuana user since she suffered a series of strokes, says that the government is ignoring people who want to be taxed: “Instead of being treated like criminals for using a substance safer than alcohol, we want to pay our fair share.”
Is it that simple? Could legalizing marijuana really rescue California? Burdened with the largest state budget deficit in the nation, California is suffering tremendously; the recent budget proposal makes enormous cuts in public education and health services. But California is also home to the nation’s largest amount of domestically grown marijuana. Advocates of legalizing the drug claim that cash-strapped communities would benefit hugely if their state or local governments could collect taxes on even a small portion of marijuana sales.
Democratic state assemblyman Tom Ammiano proposed a bill that “would remove all penalties in California law on cultivation, transportation, sale, purchase, possession, or use of marijuana, natural THC, or paraphernalia for persons over the age of 21.” His legislation would allow California to regulate and tax the sale of marijuana. If the state taxed $50-per-oz. of pot, it would gain an estimated $1.3 billion in revenues per year. While he was unsuccessful this year, Anmiano expects to revise the bill for next year and try again.
But there’s more to the debate than just the budget deficit. What about marijuana itself? The drug is less dangerous than some legal substances such as tobacco and alcohol, and thirteen states already legalized marijuana for medicinal uses. But some argue that people are simply using the economic crisis to legitimize their favorite drug. People who oppose this legislation claim making pot more readily available at a cheaper price will only increase societal problems, especially because of the addictive nature of the drug. And if we’ve put so much effort into reducing the use of tobacco, why advocate smoking something else?
Aaron Houston, who worked with the Marijuana Policy Project to put the TV ad together, says that legalizing marijuana is also about controlling it. Judging by the increase in pot use over the past couple decades, our present system is clearly flawed. Houston says we should legalize marijuana so that we can regulate it and keep it out of kids’ hands.
Interestingly, it seems the concept of legalizing marijuana is gaining popular support. According to a recent Field Poll conducted in California, 56 percent of the state’s registered voters support legalizing and taxing pot to help reduce the budget deficit. On a national level, polls illustrate that more than 45 percent of American adults are open to legalizing the drug as well. While the focus of the marijuana debate centers on California, it is by no means irrelevant to the rest of the nation. After all, marijuana is the nation’s largest cash crop, valued at $36 billion per year — that’s greater than wheat and corn combined.
No matter what side of the debate you’re on, marijuana undeniably holds the potential to bring in huge revenues for our country. In a crippling economic time, it’s certainly tempting. But do people just want to get high in peace? Is it realistic to think that legalizing marijuana will allow us to control it too? Or is time we overcome the taboo of marijuana and recognize that it is a relatively safe substance that offers a much-needed remedy for many of our social and financial problems?
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