The Monitor's View

California voters should reject legalizing marijuana

Proposition 19 would make California the first state to fully legalize marijuana. Supporters sound persuasive with talk about weakening Mexican drug cartels and helping state revenues with taxes on pot. But their arguments don't hold up.

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California voters are considering a ballot measure that would make their state the first jurisdiction in the nation – and the world – to fully legalize marijuana.

This is not a “first” that voters should support.

Proposition 19 would legalize marijuana for recreational use for people ages 21 and older. It would also allow local governments to tax and regulate commercial production and distribution – not just retail sale, as in the Netherlands.

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Proponents argue that treating pot like alcohol and tobacco will increase revenues for the cash-strapped state and decrease violence and the profits of the Mexican drug cartels. All along, supporters of legalization have maintained that pot is harmless.

Whether Californians are buying this sales pitch is unclear. A September Field poll finds that 49 percent of likely voters say they’re inclined to support Proposition 19 and legalization, while 42 percent are inclined to oppose it. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released Oct. 5 shows the opposite: 53 percent of voters are against it.

Evidence, reason, and values should dissuade people from the legalization pipe dream. Here’s a look at why the arguments of the well-funded “pro” side don’t hold up:

Not much impact on drug cartels. Legalizing marijuana in California “would not appreciably influence the Mexican drug trafficking organizations and the related violence,” according to Beau Kilmer, lead author of a report released this month by the RAND Corporation.

This nonprofit research organization has published independent studies this year that look at the potential effects of legalizing pot in California.

RAND found that marijuana exports to the United States do not account for 60 percent of drug cartel revenues from exports, as is often reported. Rather, the cartels get only 15 to 26 percent of their money from pot trafficked to the US.

If California, which accounts for one-seventh of pot use nationwide, goes legal, total drug export revenues for the cartels will drop by “perhaps 2 to 4 percent.” The big money – and the big violence – is in harder drugs.

RAND did acknowledge an exception. If high-potency California marijuana is smuggled to other states at low prices, it could seriously eat into the cartels’ take – cutting out roughly 20 percent of total export drug money.

Still, many factors could deter smuggling (and state legalization itself), including the federal government. Any use or sale of marijuana is a criminal offense under federal law. Washington might step in to stop smuggling, or challenge the ballot measure’s legality if it passes, or withhold federal highway dollars for noncompliance with the federal law.

Don’t count on tax revenues. Pot supporters say California could reap $1.4 billion from marijuana taxes, citing an estimate by the Board of Equalization, which administers the state sales tax.

But the board assumes a $50-an-ounce tax – a rate mentioned nowhere in the proposition and one that could be easily undercut by a black market. That’s what happened in the 1990s in Canada with a mere $3 tax on cigarettes. The tax had to be repealed.

Tax evasion could be widespread, and because taxing is left up to local jurisdictions, even the potential amounts will vary. If one jurisdiction opts for a low tax rate, and the marijuana industry moves to that place, then other jurisdictions won't collect much.

RAND again steps in as a leveler when talking about savings from the criminal justice system: $1 billion saved? More like $300 million, and that doesn’t account for the social costs associated with increased pot use and dependence. RAND predicts legalization will push marijuana prices down by as much as 80 percent, spurring greater use, especially among younger people.

The White House drug czar reported Thursday that overall marijuana use increased sharply – by 9 percent – from 2008 to ’09. Over the same time period, kids started using pot at a younger age. The average age for first use dropped from 17.8 years to 17. Increasing societal acceptance of marijuana is one reason behind these trends.

Pot is harmful. More than 30 percent of people who are 18 and older and who used marijuana in the past year are either dependent on the drug or abuse it, according to a 2004 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Pot is associated with cognitive impairment (affecting the ability to think, reason, and process information), poor motor skills, and respiratory and mental illness.

Critics of Prop. 19 are alarmed that its wording will affect traffic safety. The measure prohibits smoking pot while operating a vehicle, but “there is nothing to prevent drivers from smoking just prior to getting behind the wheel,” writes Pete Dunbar, former deputy police chief in Oakland.

If the ballot measure is defeated, supporters will likely regroup for another day, and try to fix flaws in the measure.

But no amount of redrafting can counter the moral argument against legalization: Real joy and satisfaction are not found in a drug. You don’t advance social good by making it easier for people to get high.

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