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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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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.

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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 The tax had to be repealed.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.