Legalize Marijuana: California’s Cannabis Choice in 2010

My home state of California is taking charge this November 2010 election with The Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010, which would legalize the contained growth and use of marijuana. Essentially the measure would bring marijuana to the level of alcohol and cigarettes: restrictions on use but certainly not making criminals out of people for putting something in their body or peacefully selling a product. I do not aim to encourage smoking marijuana or using drugs of any kind, but rather to encourage what I see as an important step in the battle for common sense and liberty.

One of the popular misconceptions is that marijuana is a “gateway” drug. Kids get hooked on pot, get involved with the wrong crowd, and soon they are on an unavoidable spiral in the world of dangerous substances. I do not want to make light of drug use and smoking, but some common reasoning is necessary to understand why legalization is smart policy. Jack E. Henningfield, a PhD for the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) for sixteen years, researched many different substances and found that not only is marijuana less addictive than caffeine, but nicotine’s addictive levels are close to that of heroin and cocaine. As far as actual scientific research has shown, marijuana ranks among the safest and least addictive substances.

What is the primary group opposing the legalization of marijuana? Not surprisingly (and slightly humorously), it is the people who make the most profit from a criminalized product: the people who sell it on the black market.

“Pot growers are nervous because a measure that could make California the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational use is set to appear on the ballot in November.” - The Union; March 26, 2010

Passing a law criminalizing a certain product is not going to get rid of that product; basic economic common sense assures us of this simple fact. Let’s say the government suddenly criminalized oranges: they’re acidic, maybe a little too rich in nutrients, and people might overindulge themselves with the sweet fruit. Would people suddenly stop eating oranges? Maybe in a child’s fantasy they would, but in reality the incentive and decision to buy, sell, and eat oranges comes not from government but from individual people. From an economic standpoint, marijuana is no different from oranges, toasters, or houses.

Criminalizing a product certainly will push up the price of that item, hardly removing the incentive of people to enter that market. With marijuana, those who can successfully grow pot and avoid the authorities often make hundreds of dollars per ounce sold. Is it any surprise, then, that these growers are some of the primary protesters to free trade and legalization of marijuana? Just as large corporations favor subsidies and regulations hindering the competitive ability of smaller businesses, pot growers are reaping the benefits of a forcefully decreased supply (and therefore higher price) of marijuana.

The simple fact is that the high crime rates surrounding marijuana arise not due to effects from the plant but because of its artificially astronomical price thanks to government criminalization. I have witnessed this impact firsthand in my surrounding area in the Sierra Nevada foothills in California. Violence comes from criminalization, not from marijuana.

“Why don’t they pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting anybody from learning anything? If it works as well as prohibition did, in five years Americans would be the smartest race of people on Earth.” – Will Rogers

Prohibition in the 1920s is perhaps the greatest case against government criminalization of a product. As is well documented and known by now, Prohibition created a booming market for smugglers, bootleggers, and gangsters who took on the job of supplying alcohol to people who desired it. In the late 1920s, Al Capone was making $60 million per year in the alcohol business. Before Prohibition, alcohol was a nonviolent, peaceful, criminal-free market based on voluntary exchange. Prohibition depressed the supply and rocketed the price of alcohol to the point that suddenly it became a dangerous industry run largely by violent criminals.

Today, people can purchase alcohol whose quality they can be sure of (rather than the unsafe moonshine many people tried to compromise with during Prohibition), and alcohol is peacefully transported and consumed around the country. A free market without government criminalization is all you need for a nonviolent, peaceful industry. The lessons of Prohibition are desperately needed today with the government throwing away billions of dollars with the goal of suppressing the growth and exchange of a natural plant. All this policy does is mold criminals out of people who have committed the furthest thing from an aggressive crime.

One of the most puzzling statements I’ve heard amidst the discussion of the new California measure is from Grass Valley, CA police Capt. Rex Marks, who said, “Marijuana will be the subject of theft,” and, “Statistically, we can expect an increase in criminal activity.” How in the world will legalizing marijuana make it any more subject to theft than it already is? Will it be more “subject to theft” than cigarettes or alcohol? The idea that letting a product freely trade in the marketplace will lead to more crime is precisely the opposite of what will indeed happen: people will voluntarily buy, sell, and use marijuana without threat of government force, the price of marijuana will fall, and it will be taken out of the hands of organized crime. California spends well over $150 million per year enforcing laws put in place to deal with the consequences of intervention in the marijuana market. Continuing the flawed and failed policy of criminalization, restriction of free trade, and suppression of innocent individuals is what will guarantee a criminal black market, increased cases of theft and murder, a complete waste of police resources, and a continuation of the unwinnable “war on drugs.”

A common concern among parents is that legalization will lead to increased drug use among teenagers and therefore we will see an increase in crime and drug abuse. We can draw another comparison with Prohibition, when in 1926 Judge H. C. Spicer declared in an Akron, Ohio juvenile court that, “During the past two years there have been more intoxicated children brought into court than ever before.” What some began to recognize is Prohibition initiated a period when teenagers and women were more likely to drink than they had been prior to Prohibition. Matthew Woll testified to the U.S. Senate in April 1926, “Millions of homes, in the majority of which liquor was never seen, have been turned into breweries and distilleries. The youth of the land is being reared in the atmosphere of disregard for law and lack of confidence in government.” Has the criminalization of Cannabis been any different? Perhaps it has not touched as many individual families as Prohibition did, but the same factors are at work.

Even if we decided to ignore the facts of Prohibition and assume that people are correct that pot would flood the market and invade the young adult culture (as if it hasn’t made a major impact already), we must analyze the principles at stake. Is it really the job of government to do the job of parents? I can understand parents worried about their kids’ exposure to drugs and alcohol, but a more invasive and expansive government will not accomplish the paternal goal of compassion. Trying to make government socially compassionate is like trying to make a pillow softer by stuffing it with barbed wire. In the end, the only people who can parent the kids are the parents. Not the police, not some government bureaucrats creating laws in a fancy building, not a Governor or President, only the parents.

“Private morals and personal conduct can not be controlled, much less advanced, by fiat of law. Appeal for a higher morality and improved conduct must be directed to the mind and conscience of the people, not to the fear of government.” – Matthew Woll; April 1926

The legalization of marijuana would be a step forward for California and the country. Passing of the measure would not result in hippies taking over California and throwing pot at every person they see, it simply gets the train moving for a society built on the wonders of free trade and recognizes the follies of government criminalization and intervention. Legalization of marijuana would bring decreased crime, increased trade, and would maximize what is a struggling institution in the U.S. today: individual liberty. The basic principle and greatest challenge of liberty is to allow people to do what they please with their liberty, whether it be brilliant or boneheaded, so long as they don’t impact the liberty of another individual. The choice is clear: legalize or stick a dagger in the heart of liberty. Those who desire a less intrusive and more respectable government must support the new California proposal.

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