by Jacob Sullum
On Wednesday the California Assembly's Public Safety Committee heard testimony on a marijuana legalization bill introduced by its chairman, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco). According to the Drug War Chronicle, "The hearing marked the first time legalization has been discussed in the legislature since California banned marijuana in 1913." Judging from summaries of the testimony in various news accounts, prohibitionists needed more time to prepare their arguments.
The two most credible arguments raised by opponents of legalization were that increased marijuana consumption would impair productivity and contribute to traffic accidents. Both concerns can be countered by a comparison with alcohol, which affects job performance at least as much as pot does and has a more dramatic effect on driving ability. Those hazards suggest rules for consumption (don't drink on the job and don't drive when you're drunk), but neither is thought to justify prohibition.
What would be the practical impact of abandoning this arbitrary distinction between alcohol and marijuana? If there are many confirmed teetotalers who become regular pot smokers after marijuana is legalized, or if there are many drinkers who continue consuming the same amount of alcohol and start smoking pot too, there might be a net decline in job performance or a net increase in traffic accidents, assuming that a substantial portion of each group behaves irresponsibly. But since most people do not have an infinite taste for intoxication, it seems likely that any increase in marijuana consumption would be accompanied by a decrease in drinking. Because alcohol impairs drivers substantially more than marijuana does, this substitution effect could yield a net improvement in public safety.
As for the less credible arguments against legalizing marijuana, I was struck by this one:
Sara Simpson, acting assistant chief of the state Justice Department's Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, said much of California's major marijuana cultivation is run by Mexican drug cartels on remote public lands, and she recited a litany of violent and deadly clashes with armed guards at such sites. Such growing operations also are environmentally devastating, she said, and produce marijuana far more potent than that used just years ago. There's no reason to believe the cartels would adhere to state laws on cultivation, potency and taxation any more than they adhere to prohibition now, she said.
The point is not the "the cartels" would suddenly start behaving like good corporate citizens but that they would be driven out of this particular business by open, legal competition. Their skills of subterfuge and violence would no longer be worth anything, and legitimate businesses would take their place. No doubt bootleggers would have loved to continue making money by smuggling booze even after the 21st Amendment took effect, but they couldn't (although some of them did become nonviolent, law-abiding participants in the newly legal alcohol industry).
As a RAND Corporation analyst pointed out at the hearing, a black market in marijuana might persist if the legal product were heavily taxed. But that's an argument against high taxes, not against legalization. Several witnesses also noted that marijuana would still be prohibited under federal law, meaning that producers and sellers would still be vulnerable to arrest and prosecution. But that is exactly the scenario that needs to play out if we are going to see any serious progress in ending the war on the drugs. Will the federal government go to war with a state that legalizes the cultivation and sale of marijuana within its borders, or will it find a way to live with a diversity of state policies in this area (as the Constitution requires)? The Obama administration's move toward a less aggressive posture vis-a-vis medical marijuana, assuming it is genuine, could point the way to a federalist experiment that resolves some of the questions raised by opponents of legalization.
Addendum: Speaking of lame arguments, Bruce Mirken at the Marijuana Policy Project points out this TV spot from Community Alliances for Drug Free Youth, titled "Seriously?" It presents a series of fictional potheads offering dumb reasons for legalization. The difference is that the prohibitionist counterparts to these clueless clowns not only exist but are testifying before the California legislature.