The prohibition against the consumption of cannabis may be our nation's most misguided public policy. Not only has it failed, but like our government's prior experiment with prohibition, it has spawned a wave of destructive side-effects far more pernicious than the ills it seeks to protect us from. Regardless of whether or not you ever intend to smoke marijuana, you should vote yes on Proposition 19 to help our country rectify this colossal mistake.
This seventy-year-old public policy not only doesn't work, but costs the state about $1 billion a year while ruining more lives than the plant itself ever will. Cannabis is cheaper, more available, more potent, and more popular than ever. If insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, let's vote for a moment of sanity.
Prop 19 is just over a dozen pages long and offers incremental, thoughtful change for the better. It allows adults 21 and over to possess up to one ounce of cannabis — about the size of a sandwich bag. It also allows adults over 21 to grow up to 25 square-feet of the plant on private property; about the size of a good closet.
Prop 19 would tax and regulate a $14 billion-a-year state agricultural product used by more than three million Californians monthly. Protecting local control, Prop 19 lets cities and counties decide if they want to permit commercial cultivation and sales of the herbal remedy.
And yet, Prop 19 also stiffens the penalties for furnishing marijuana to minors. It protects workplace and road safety by explicitly stating that employers can still fire stoned workers and cops can still arrest intoxicated drivers. This is something you won't hear from the Reefer Madness crowd, which has a long history of outright lying about the dangers of an astonishingly non-toxic plant.
Cannabis has co-evolved with human beings for at least 5,000 years. Its medicinal properties for treating epilepsy, arthritis, glaucoma, and neuropathic pain have been known for centuries. Up until the 1940s, Americans had "tinctures of cannabis" in their medicine cabinets.
That changed largely through the efforts of newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst and the nation's first drug warrior Henry Anslinger. Hearst had a gripe with Mexico and Mexican migrants after a million acres he owned south of the border was seized by Pancho Villa in 1915. Anslinger was a moral entrepreneur who rose to power legislating Protestant notions of bodily purity. The two teamed up in the 1930s, and Hearst started calling cannabis "marijuana" — a racially charged slang term from Mexican migrants — and publishing salacious stories about "negroes" using the drug to rape white women. Anslinger used Hearst's articles to press for banning the relatively unknown substance "marijuana" in Congress, over the opinion of doctors associations of the time. Over the next seventy years, cannabis' popularity grew in proportion to enforcement dollars spent against it.
In the Seventies, Nixon merged the war on cannabis with his war on the counter-culture. In the Eighties, busting potheads become a tent pole of Reagan's moral majority. Stiff zero-tolerance penalties derailed the employment, education, and life paths of anyone caught with the plant — and still usage increased. The land of the free became home to more prisoners per capita than any country on the planet.
America also issued a de facto ban on any scientific investigation into cannabis' possible benefits, while research in other countries surged ahead. By the mid-Nineties, cannabis' well-known uses as an appetite stimulant and nausea reducer led to California passing historic medical marijuana legislation.
Since then, scientists and doctors from around the world have concluded that cannabis is one of the most benign drugs on the planet. It is impossible for a patient to overdose with it. Pot is believed to be addictive for 9 percent of its users, compared to 15 percent for alcohol, and 32 percent for tobacco. Research suggests that smoking pot doesn't cause lung cancer, unlike tobacco smoke, and research shows the chemicals in cannabis actually prevent "angiogenesis," the process by which cancer tumors co-opt local blood supplies to grow. Pot doesn't rot people's brains, either. The US Government actually has a patent on using pot as a "neuroprotectant" during strokes.
Despite its low potential for abuse, genuine medical uses, and relative harmlessness, the federal government persists in labeling the plant a "Schedule One" drug, on a par with crack, heroin, and methamphetamine. The federal government spends about $17 billion a year prosecuting a drug war that has clearly failed. That money trickles down to California, where the Cato Institute concludes the state government spends a billion dollars per year enforcing pot laws.
Despite its $18 billion deficit, the state is spending money arresting more than 60,000 Californians every year for pot possession, and imprisoning sellers and growers at a cost of $45,000 per year, per prisoner. The governor recently made possession of pot equivalent to a traffic ticket, begging the question, "Why then, are we imprisoning people for sales of something so innocuous its use warrants a traffic ticket?"
This failed, wasteful policy actually increases the price of pot by up to 90 percent, a RAND Corporation study has found, encouraging youths to deal to their friends and helping to fund Mexican drug cartels. Ask any kid which is harder to get: pot or alcohol, and they will tell you alcohol. Liquor store owners can lose their livelihood for selling to minors and they're loathe to do so. By contrast, high school pot dealing is a roughly $30 per hour part-time job, better than any retail work a kid can get.
Legalizing pot will cause its price to drop to around that of carrots and lettuce, defunding pot dealers and making school, neighborhoods, cities, and even the country a little safer, the same way ending alcohol prohibition helped to end associated mob violence.
At first, pot usage may go up, but several other countries that decriminalized pot eventually saw their usage rates go down to prior levels or even lower.
The lobbyists for the alcohol industry and narcotics officers who are running the No on 19 campaign say they worry about what message taxing and regulating pot will send to the youth of the state. But a vote to tax and regulate pot is not a vote in approval of any substance use, any more than our society currently "approves" of cigarette use, gun ownership, motorcycle jumping, or consumption of quadruple bacon western cheeseburgers.
The government can and should play a role in educating and encouraging healthy behavior, though. America cut its tobacco use in half in a generation through the imposition of taxes and educational programs paid for by those taxes. Cigarettes have taught us that we don't have to criminalize people to change them.
Opponents of Prop 19 note that pot will still be illegal under federal law, but they need to take a basic civics lesson in federalism and the idea of the "states as laboratories." New York defied the US Constitution's ban on liquor years before the repeal of alcohol prohibition. California defied the federal government with tough global warming legislation, as well. The founders of this country knew times would change, new facts would emerge, and they built a system that encouraged and could easily survive bold changes by states.
It's time to legalize pot, not just decriminalize it. Let's wrap the long arms of the taxman and the regulator around the whole supply chain and bring it in from the cold. Millions of Californians are already using cannabis safely every month, in defiance of expensive, unenforceable, and profoundly unjust laws. It's time they paid taxes on their recreational drug of choice, just like the rest of us.
Pot should pay its fair share, instead of costing us all money we don't have. Vote Yes on 19.