Legalized Marijuana is Coming

Recreational cannabis use may become legal in California this November. That’s right. Whatever you prefer to call it—pot, grass, weed, marijuana—like alcohol, it would become legal for adults to use recreationally. Cannabis is already permitted for medical purposes in 14 states. Millions of Americans use it for recreational purposes. Regulating it allows the government to tax it and control how it is used. This is not unlike the prohibition amendment in the early 20th century that led to a massive black market. When substances like alcohol and cannabis are forced underground, you simply feed crime, lose control of age limits, lose out of taxing it, send a lot of otherwise productive citizens to jail, create drug wars in other countries (e.g., Mexico), and make it more attractive to users.

The state of California need the money. Taxing cannabis will bring in between $1.4-2 billion annually, and will significantly reduce the costly prison population of California’s overcrowded detention facilities. It will also save on drug enforcement, allowing the police to work in more productive areas. In 2003, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) published “Economic Costs of Drug Abuse,” which stated without separately analyzing cannabis related costs, the United States was spending $12.1 billion on law enforcement and court costs, and $16.9 billion in corrections costs, totaling $29 billion.

Right now polls indicate that the bill have a shot of passing this November. Before we look at further implications of this initiative—called Prop 19—let’s review some history.


Prohibitions of cannabis as a drug arose in many states from 1906 and onward. By the mid-1930s, cannabis, or marijuana, as a drug was regulated in every state by laws instituted through the Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act. Mandatory sentencing and increased punishment were enacted when the United States Congress passed the Boggs Act of 1952 and the Narcotics Control Act of 1956. The acts made a first time cannabis possession offense a minimum of two to ten years with a fine up to $20,000. After the 1960s, a time characterized by widespread use of cannabis as a recreational drug, a wave of legislation in America sought to reduce the penalties for the simple possession of cannabis, making it punishable by confiscation and/or a fine rather than imprisonment. In 1970, the United States Congress repealed mandatory penalties for cannabis offenses, and throughout the 1970s, many places in the United States started to decriminalize cannabis.

During the Reagan Administration the Sentencing Reform Act provisions of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 created the Sentencing Commission, which established mandatory sentencing guidelines. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 reinstated mandatory prison sentences, including large scale cannabis distribution. Later an amendment created a three-strikes law, which created mandatory life sentences for repeat drug offenders and allowed the death penalty to be used against “drug kingpins.” In 1996, California passed the Compassionate Use Act, which decriminalized medical cannabis by enacting laws that allow regulated cannabis consumption, possession, cultivation, and distribution for medicinal use. Since then twelve states have enacted similar laws (source).


If the proposal is defeated, it will be the same groups that defeated Prop 8 in California. The religious right gets very scared about these kind of changes. Many feel like it would institutionalize the use of this drug, or promote drug use, or that society will start looking more like the criminal elements of the drug-dealing culture. These are all unfounded. First off, just because something is legal does not necessarily make people more likely to use it. For instance, despite tougher drug policies in the U.S., Americans are twice as likely to have tried marijuana than the Dutch (cannabis is legal in the Netherlands), according to one study. Researchers found that 42% of people surveyed in the U.S. have tried marijuana at least once, and 16% have tried cocaine. About 20% of residents surveyed in the Netherlands, by contrast, reported having tried pot. A similar pattern is found in countries that ban abortion verses legalizing it: Countries that ban it tend to have more abortions, and most of them are unsafe for women, resulting in many fatalities on top of the high number of abortions.

Really what you’re doing is
channeling money that was
going to drug dealers, gangs,
warlords, etc., and giving it
to schools, infrastructure,
and other community projects.

A second reason why conservatives should favor this proposal is because it will help the state be more fiscally responsible (more revenue), while also controlling age limited, trade, transportation, etc. The Drug Enforcement Agency has reported that cannabis sales and trafficking support violent criminal gangs. Proponents of fully decriminalizing cannabis to allow the regulated cultivation and sale of cannabis, including Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, argue that fully decriminalizing cannabis would largely decrease financial gains earned by gangs in black market cannabis sales and trafficking. Really what you’re doing is channeling money that was going to drug dealers, gangs, warlords, etc., and giving it to schools, infrastructure, and other community projects. It could also go toward treatment, which is a much better way of dealing with drug problems than prison. The Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative reports,

In Baltimore, it costs $23,000 a year to keep those imprisoned for using drugs in jail. Treatment for these same individuals would cost between 5,000 and $8,500 dollars. Given that the re-incarceration rate for inmates who have had no treatment is 50% while the recidivism rate of those who have lived in a therapeutic community is only 8%, it is not hard to do the cost/benefit analysis of treatment over incarceration…one dollar spent on the treatment of an addict reduces the probability of continued addiction seven times more than one dollar spent on incarceration…Yet we are willing to build more and more jails in which to isolate the drug user. (source)

From a Lancet medical journal study: Drugs were then scored out of 100, with 100 given to the most harmful drug and zero indicating no harm at all. The scientists found alcohol was most harmful, with a score of 72, followed by heroin with 55 and crack with 54. Marijuana was given a score of 20 (source1; source2)
Some argue that this is a health issue; that pot is harmful. Well, so is fast food. Marijuana is actually safer than many of the foods we eat—foods that are approved by the FDA. A recent Lancet Journal study found that alcohol (score of 72) was more harmful than heroin (55) and crack (54), with marijuana scoring a 20 (much less than alcohol, which is legal). This is one reason why cannabis has been quite successful in getting approved for medical use. A number of prominent health organizations have approved marijuana for medical use, including:
  • American Public Health Association
  • American Academy for Family Physicians
  • American Society for Addiction Medicine
  • California Health Association
  • National Association for Public Health Policy
  • New England Journal of Medicine
  • American Nurses Association
  • American Medical Student Association

Obviously inhaling smoke of any kind into your lungs is not good for you. But again, this substance is less harmful than tobacco and alcohol. In fact, some evidence suggests that Marijuana is an anti-cancer agent. These studies were done on rats. The controls groups died of cancer, while cancer in the treated groups disappeared. It sholdn’t necessarily be seen as the next big health supplement. But clearly the harmful effects have been exaggerated.

Here are some great video clips that report on the this issue.


Here is an outline of key element of the proposed legislation.

  • Control cannabis like alcohol, allowing adults 21 and over in California to possess up to one ounce of cannabis, to be consumed at home or licensed establishments
  • Give state and local governments the ability to tax the sale of cannabis for adult consumption
  • Put our police priorities where they belong, by ending the arrests of non-violent cannabis consumers, saving hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars a year and enabling police to focus on violent crime
  • Generate billions in annual revenue to fund what matters most in California: jobs, healthcare, public safety, parks, roads, transportation, and more
  • Cut off funding to violent drug cartels across our border who currently generate 60 percent of their revenue from the illegal U.S. marijuana market
  • Protect our kids, our roads, and our workplaces, by increasing the penalty for selling marijuana to minors, banning the smoking of marijuana in public, on school grounds, and while minors are present, maintaining strict criminal penalties for driving under the influence of marijuana, and preserving employers’ rights to maintain drug-free workplaces
  • Protect medical cannabis patients’ rights

More on prop 19: here and here. Here is the web site against prop 19. The web site for prop 19 (pro-legalization of cannabis).

Some points from The Marijuana Policy Project of California:

  • 1. Regulation will Focus police priorities on real crime, not marijuana users.In 2008, more than 78,000 Californians were arrested on marijuana charges – 80% for simple possession, not sale or manufacture. During the same year, almost 60,000 violent crimes went unsolved.
  • 2. Regulation will Fund vital state programs without raising taxes on families.Marijuana is California’s top cash crop but this industry goes untaxed while Sacramento raises taxes on middle-class families and is making deep cuts to police, schools, and hospitals.
  • 3. Regulation will Get the drug dealers out of our streets and schools.Prohibition creates an unregulated, criminal market for marijuana where drug dealers routinely sell to kids. Regulating marijuana will take marijuana out of the hands of criminals and put it where it belongs: in a well regulated, licensed market only available to adults.


I have not and do not choose to use cannabis. But I don’t think people should be in jail for making the choice to responsibly use this substance. There are compelling reasons for both liberals and conservatives to support complete decriminalization of cannabis, along with appropriate regulation. Hopefully California can make this work in a way that makes an easy sell for national adoption.


  • High: The True Tale of American Marijuana (2008)
  • Adventures in Cannabis Hemp (2008)
  • Super High Me (2007)
  • Magic Weed: The Truth About Cannabis Sativa (2003)
  • Grass (2000)
  • Hemp Revolution (1995)

Watch documentaries about Cannabis here.

Other links:

The recent Rolling Stone Magazine article

Wikipedia article

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