Most Americans do not want to spend scarce
public funds incarcerating nonviolent marijuana
offenders, at a cost of $23,000 per year. Politicians
must reconsider our country’s priorities and attach
more importance to combating violent crime than
targeting marijuana smokers.
Marijuana prohibition costs taxpayers at least
$7.5 billion annually. This is an enormous waste of
scarce federal dollars that should be used to target
Marijuana prohibition makes no exception for the
medical use of marijuana. The tens of thousands of
seriously ill Americans who presently use marijuana
as a therapeutic agent to alleviate symptoms of
cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, or multiple sclerosis risk
arrest and jail to obtain and use their medication.
Between 1978 and 1996, 34 states passed laws
recognizing marijuana’s therapeutic value. Most
recently, voters in two states — Arizona and
California — passed laws allowing for the medical
use of marijuana under a physician’s supervision.
Yet, states are severely limited in their ability to
implement their medical use laws because of the
federal prohibition of marijuana.
America tried alcohol prohibition between 1919
and 1931, but discovered that the crime and
violence associated with prohibition was more
damaging than the evil sought to be prohibited.
tobacco, America has learned over the last decade
that education is the most effective way to
discourage use. Yet, America fails to apply these
lessons to marijuana policy.
By stubbornly defining all marijuana smoking as
criminal, including that which involves adults
smoking in the privacy of their own homes, we are
wasting police and prosecutorial resources, clogging
courts, filling costly and scarce jail and prison space,
and needlessly wrecking the lives and careers of
genuinely good citizens.
Marijuana legalization offers an important
advantage over decriminalization in that it allows for
legal distribution and taxation of cannabis. In the
absence of taxation, the free market price of legal
marijuana would be extremely low, on the order of
five to ten cents per joint. In terms of intoxicating
potential, a joint is equivalent to at least $1 or $2
worth of alcohol, the price at which cannabis is
currently sold in the Netherlands.
The easiest way to
hold the price at this level under legalization would
be by an excise tax on commercial sales. An
examination of the external costs imposed by
cannabis users on the rest of society suggests that a
“harmfulness tax” of $.50 – $1 per joint is appropriate. It can be estimated that excise taxes in this range would raise between $2.2 and $6.4 billion per year.
Altogether, legalization would save the
taxpayers around $8 – $16 billion, not counting the
economic benefits of hemp agriculture and other
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