Tuesday, February 2, 2010
Can we repeal the law of unintended consequences?
A petition to put a proposition legalizing marijuana cultivation and sale in California has collected more than twice the number of signatures it needs to get on the ballot this fall. I think the proponents gave themselves such a comfortable margin of error knowing how many times they would get Smokey McPott's signature.
All kidding aside, the governor and the legislature talked about this last year, but California government right now doesn't actually do much of anything, especially something this bold. If it happens at all, expect it to come through the ballot initiative.
Marijuana is not just a left-right issue any more. Some libertarians on the right like Ron Paul frame the issue as one of state's rights. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said he never took drugs, but he has smoked pot. "Marijuana is not a drug. It's a leaf." The governor may not have done very well in chemistry or botany class, (it's the flower, not the leaf and it's full of chemicals) but he is not the only person who sees a significant difference between marijuana and other illegal drugs. If the proposition gets on the ballot, it's a distinct possibility that it will pass. The Bush administration tried to make medical marijuana as difficult as possible to sell in California, subverting the will of the people as stated in a 1996 proposition. The Obama administration has taken a more hands off approach, not unlike the Clinton administration before them.
A lot of numbers are thrown around estimating the size of the California marijuana cash crop. Some say it is as high as $14 billion, compared to $5.6 billion for vegetables and $2.6 billion for grapes. Whether pot will still command such high prices when it is legal is hard to say, but the prices in the Netherlands over the counter are about the same as the prices in the United States on the black market, from about $1,000 an ounce for skunk weed to a high between $3,000 to $4,500 for the best quality herb. Compare this to saffron, which sells for $500 to $5,000 an ounce. While this is obviously a very high price per pound, a pound is good for about 600 to 1,500 joints, more than a year's supply for anyone on this side of Woody Harrelson.
If I may use an overused phrase, this law could be a real game changer here in California. The state could save money on the law enforcement end and get revenue both at the state and federal level from people in the business of marijuana cultivation, distribution and sales who would legally report their newly legal income. An extra tax at the point of sale similar to alcohol and cigarette taxes is already being discussed in the legislature.
But then there's the fallout from taking billions of dollars out of the illegal economy and putting it into legal. Gangs would still have other illegal drugs to sell, but taking pot off the table will be a serious blow to their business, and I don't expect the Crips and the Norteños to sit around singing Crosby, Stills and Nash tunes and ponder whether they should switch to Amway products or selling Beanie Babies on eBay. On the so-called legal end of things, after the dust settles on the downsized drug business, we might actually get away from the constantly expanding prison population, and the powerful prison guard union won't like that one little bit.
Don't get me wrong. Though it will have next to no effect on my personal habits, I think marijuana legalization is a good idea on balance. It also is much more likely to be implemented on the state level than it is on the federal level, and I expect Democratic administrations will show less dickishness towards the states who legalize than will Republican administrations. But there are things we haven't thought about that much that could present serious problems on the road to Matthew McConaughey's dream world.