Marijuana Legalization Most Americans do not want to spend scarce public funds incarcerating nonviolent marijuana offenders, at a cost of $23,000 per year. Politicians must reconsider our country’s priorities and attach more importance to combating violent crime than targeting marijuana smokers. Marijuana prohibition costs taxpayers at least $7.5 billion annually. This is an enormous waste of scarce federal dollars that should be used to target violent crime. Marijuana prohibition makes no exception for the medical use of marijuana.
The tens of thousands of seriously ill Americans who presently use marijuana as a therapeutic agent to alleviate symptoms of cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, or multiple sclerosis risk arrest and jail to obtain and use their medication. Between 1978 and 1996, 34 states passed laws recognizing marijuana’s therapeutic value. Most recently, voters in two states — Arizona and California — passed laws allowing for the medical use of marijuana under a physician’s supervision. Yet, states are severely limited in their ability to implement their medical use laws because of the federal prohibition of marijuana. America tried alcohol prohibition between 1919 and 1931, but discovered that the crime and violence associated with prohibition was more damaging than the evil sought to be prohibited. With tobacco, America has learned over the last decade that education is the most effective way to discourage use. Yet, America fails to apply these lessons to marijuana policy. By stubbornly defining all marijuana smoking as criminal, including that which involves adults smoking in the privacy of their own homes, we are wasting police and prosecutorial resources, clogging courts, filling costly and scarce jail and prison space, and needlessly wrecking the lives and careers of genuinely good citizens. Marijuana legalization offers an important advantage over decriminalization in that it allows for legal distribution and taxation of cannabis. In the absence of taxation, the free market price of legal marijuana would be extremely low, on the order of five to ten cents per joint.
In terms of intoxicating potential, a joint is equivalent to at least $1 or $2 worth of alcohol, the price at which cannabis is currently sold in the Netherlands. The easiest way to hold the price at this level under legalization would be by an excise tax on commercial sales. An examination of the external costs imposed by cannabis users on the rest of society suggests that a”harmfulness tax” of $.50 – $1 per joint is appropriate. It can be estimated that excise taxes in this range would raise between $2.2 and $6.4 billion per year. Altogether, legalization would save the taxpayers around $8 – $16 billion, not counting the economic benefits of hemp agriculture and other spinoff industries.