Drug Law

Marijuana’s Social Costs Far Less than Booze, Cigarettes

| by NORML

By Paul Armentano

Last week I posted a brief response to the Los Angeles Times commentary authored by Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske (along with five previous drug czars) condemning California’s Prop. 19.

Today the Los Angeles Times has posted my full rebuttal, which I’ve excerpted below.

Some marijuana tax revenue is better than none
via The Los Angeles Times

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… Kerlikowske’s opposition to Proposition 19 … is a fairly common one. Kerlikowske et al argue that, if legalized, marijuana’s perceived social costs would outweigh the economic benefits reaped by regulation. They base this allegation largely on the premise that present taxes on alcohol and cigarettes fail to adequately pay for the societal costs associated with those drugs’ use and abuse. True enough, but here’s why this sound bite is irrelevant to the present marijuana debate.

Marijuana is safer than alcohol.
Alcohol is toxic to healthy cells and organs, a side effect that results directly in about 35,000 deaths a year. … By contrast, the active compounds in marijuana … are remarkably non-toxic. Unlike alcohol, marijuana is incapable of causing a fatal overdose, and its use is inversely associated with aggression and injury. In fact, the recently released Rand Corp. report found that in 2008, there were fewer than 200 “admissions to hospitals in which marijuana abuse or dependence was listed as the primary reason for the hospitalization.” By comparison, there are more than 70,000 hospitalizations in California annually related to the use of alcohol.

Marijuana is far safer than tobacco.

According to a 2009 report by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, health-related costs per user are eight times higher for drinkers than they are for those who use cannabis, and are more than 40 times higher for tobacco smokers. It states: “In terms of (health-related) costs per user: tobacco-related health costs are over $800 per user, alcohol-related health costs are much lower at $165 per user, and cannabis-related health costs are the lowest at $20 per user.”

Some tax revenue is better than no tax revenue.

According to a 2007 George Mason University study, U.S. citizens each year spend about $113 billion on marijuana. Under prohibition, all of this spending is directed toward an underground economy and goes untaxed. That means state and local governments are presently collecting zero dollars to offset societal and health costs related to recreational marijuana use. Therefore, the imposition of any retail tax or excise fee would be an improvement over the current situation.

In short, the drug czars’ assessment that present taxes on alcohol and tobacco — two deadly products — do not raise sufficient funding to offset their related social costs is not an argument in favor of maintaining the status quo, particularly when one recognizes that the social and health costs related to cannabis use are far less than those associated with the use of other intoxicants.

You can read my full commentary here. (You can also comment on it here.)