Will the Recession (Depression?) Lead to Cannibis Legalization?
Since this is a blog where the Christian rightwing regularly denounces my faith, let me set some things straight right away:
- Unlike our current U.S. president and the last two (Bush and Clinton), I have never used ANY controlled substance recreationally. I have never smoked tobacco (not even one puff on a cigarette), never mind cannibis. This is true despite having grown up during the ’60s and ’70s when going to the school BATHROOM could mean walking in on a drug sale. Yes, many of my friends, including several children of preachers or deacons, used pot. But the stuff gave me a headache and a queasy stomach from across a room, so I was never tempted to try it personally.
- I DID engage in teenage alcohol use–although after being drunk twice I decided I hated that and never drank more than 1 beer at a time ever since. (Even after becoming a Christian, I never bought the fundamentalist argument that all alcohol use is sinful, rather than its abuse.)
- I am NOT promoting pot smoking. Looking up the medical benefits and dangers, I conclude that it is only slightly less likely to cause cancer than tobacco use and, like alcohol, can be a gateway drug to harder use–but no more than alcohol. I have known too many burned out stoners to be sanguine about pot use recreationally–although it has medical uses, especially for cancer patients where it has fewer side effects than many legal painkillers.
Now, having said that, I have to say that I have long thought the U.S. approach to drug policy was ludicrous. The “war on drugs” is a complete and utter failure. It has made no dents in the drug cartels, but has filled our prisons with nonviolent drug users, siphoning valuable law enforcement resources from other priorities and turning those drug users (often) into real criminals. Drug enforcement should concentrate on going after the financing, especially the banks that launder the drug money. It should treat drug abuse as a public health problem more than a law enforcement problem: Every dollar spent on prevention is worth $10 spent on law enforcement and every $1 spent on drug rehabilitation is worth $5 spent on law enforcement in terms of effectiveness.
During the Great Depression, the U.S. repealed the failed experiment in government coerced alcohol abstinence called “Prohibition.” Prohibition had created the large scale crime syndicates. It’s repeal temporarily hurt organized crime, until it switched to gambling, prostitution, and illegal drugs. But legal alcohol consumption also created a thriving industry in an economy that needed thriving industries and a major source of revenue for a government that needed spend money to help the nation out of the Depression.
We face a similar context today and someone, San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, has decided to combat California’s huge budget problems by introducing the legalization of cannabis, CA’s largest (though illegal) crop. Consider what legalization for all uses, not just medical, could do:
- CA would save an estimated $1.7 billion annually in law enforcement from not pursuing pot smokers. That number includes savings from not incarcerating recreational pot smokers, but it does not include the money CA would save in fines from judges penalizing them for overcrowded prisons!
- Taxation of cannibis could generate another $1 billion in revenue for CA.
- It could generate jobs: cannibis farmers, cannibis cigarette makers, bong makers, etc.
- Hemp, the form of cannibis that cannot be used as a drug (genetically identical) but is used for rope and other industrial uses would also be legal and generate more jobs and revenue.
- Would this put a dent in at least some of the drug cartels, making our streets safer or would they just switch to harder drugs? Regardless, we have limited law enforcement resources and I would rather have cops pursuing PCP and Meth labs than pot farmers.
IF this passes in CA (it will be tough, but CA is just desperate enough for money that it might make it), it could be a bellwhether for the rest of the nation. Would we actually see a decrease in pot smoking after awhile as the lure of the forbidden is removed? It has been too recent since Canada decriminalized cannabis to ask our neighbors to the north for hard data.
I am torn on the idea. Not being a pot smoker–and not liking to be around people who smoke ANYTHING while they are puffing their foul odors near my lungs–I have zero personal interest in whether this law passes or not. But I know that our current drug policy makes little sense from either a law enforcement, a prison reform, or a public health standpoint. Will economics trump old movies about “reefer madness?” Will churches still try to get government to enforce moral standards on their members that they cannot get them to observe without the heavy hand of the law?
I have no answers. And to be honest, I worry that economic hardship and the emotional strains it causes is already leading to increases in alcoholism. Will legalizing pot just cause those having trouble finding a job to drown their sorrows in weed–and become burnouts who CAN’T get work?? I don’t know.
I invite your responses, especially if you have data from public health, rehab, law enforcement, etc.–and cross-cultural experience with other societies’ approaches would be especially welcome.
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