By Barrett Duke
WASHINGTON -- California continues to lead the way on marijuana decriminalization. Now the state plans to vote on legalizing possession, production and commercial sales and taxation of marijuana. A number of arguments are being used to legitimize this move, but all of the arguments are easily disputed.
Legalizers claim that legalization will free law enforcement to investigate more serious crimes. However, once the state has a vested interest in something, it works very hard to secure its monopoly. Our nation's history with alcohol is a prime example.
When our newly formed government looked for a way to pay off the enormous debt created by the Revolutionary War, it turned to taxation of alcohol as part of the solution. The only problem was that many people didn't want to pay the tax and resorted to black market activities. The federal government responded by hiring enforcement agents who cracked down on the illegal alcohol trade.
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The federal government's effort to prevent the tax-dodging criminal trade in illegal alcohol persists to this day through the government's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. We can expect the same thing to happen in California when tax receipts are involved.
Indeed it will likely result in a more robust and determined prosecution of marijuana users and distributors as the state protects its new revenue source by ferreting out the tax-dodging illegal marijuana purveyors. An entirely new regulatory, taxing and enforcement bureaucracy will develop around the state's vested interest in securing its cut of the profits from its monopoly on the control of marijuana sales.
Others argue that marijuana legalization will end the illicit trade in marijuana. Everyone isn't convinced. In fact, the Mexican authorities are complaining that medical marijuana laws in our nation are making it more difficult for them to press their battle against the massive drug problem in their country. I can only imagine what they will say about the effects the legalization of marijuana in California will have on their efforts.
Easier access to marijuana will result in greater demand. A black market will seek to respond to that demand by offering more potent or cheaper marijuana. It will also continue to supply the drug to people who do not want it known that they use it and to those too young to buy it legally.
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Since much of our nation's drug problem is a direct result of adolescent drug use, I do not see how legalization for those 21 and older will prevent the ongoing illegal sale of marijuana.
Additionally, we must remember that marijuana is a gateway drug to other drugs. Most people who use harder drugs started their drug use with marijuana. If California eases its restrictions on marijuana, it is certain to result in increased demand for other drugs as a percentage of these marijuana users seek to experiment with other drugs.
Since it is unlikely that Californians are going to condone the legalization of all drugs, including cocaine and heroin, they can expect the illegal trade in these other drugs to persist and increase as demand increases.
I agree that the drug war is costly and that our nation has done poorly when it comes to reducing demand, but the answer to the problem is not making marijuana more accessible.
Legalization of marijuana will result in more of all of the problems associated with its use, including respiratory and other diseases, loss of productivity in the workplace, increased family disintegration, more drug addiction and more crime.
The answer to our nation's drug abuse crisis is more enforcement against drug dealers, better education about the problems caused by drug use and better rehabilitation programs for people coming out of drug abuse. This will require a national response, involving parents, churches, community organizations, business leaders, law enforcement and the medical profession.
Until we can address the reasons for demand, we will not permanently turn the corner in our war against the use of life-destroying drugs, including marijuana.
Barrett Duke is vice president for public policy and research at the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.