Pragmatists will argue that prohibition just doesn’t work. The Big Government crowd will argue that the State’s finances are in such dire straits that we might as well tax marijuana, which will be consumed whether we like it or not. Social conservatives will argue that legalization will unravel the fabric of society. Strangely enough, none of them are arguing that Proposition 19 simply will not do what it advertises, and in fact imposes great economic and social costs itself.
Foremost among the public policy objectives of Prop 19 is improving the criminal justice system by reducing criminalization. The intent is to stop wasting resources prosecuting largely victimless activities and divert police attention to more serious offenses. Prop 19 does no such thing. While it would legalize the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, this amount is already decriminalized and is not an arrestable offense, and possession is also already being downgraded to an infraction. The California Police Chiefs Association admits that they do not enforce the law in cases involving under an ounce. Taken together, these factors make the effects of legalization on reducing arrests for possession trivial.
The law would actually exacerbate many of the enforcement problems we currently face by creating new demographics of groups to jail. The law would make it expressly illegal to give marijuana to anyone under 21, under penalty of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, yet the current penalty is only a $100 fine. Even smoking in the presence of minors can result in arrests – even for those who use the drug medicinally. By reclassifying minor offenses into more serious ones, Prop 19 would actually result in more enforcement and higher costs. The initiative would make it illegal to possess marijuana purchased from anyone other than a State-licensed dispensary. That removes the presumption of innocence from the court system, shifting the burden of proof onto the citizen, and allows the State to create legal monopolies, which would remove competition and advance corporate rather than consumer interests. That’s bad jurisprudence and bad economics.
The second main purpose, revenue generation, is just as more problematic. Like any tax, it would shift resources away from useful economic activity toward the already bloated California government. If a person is going to be buying marijuana whether or not a tax is in place, the amount paid as tax would have instead gone to other things, such as consumer goods. And while proponents claim it will reduce the efficacy of cartels, the tax rate of $50/oz currently being recommended will maintain a black market and all the other crimes that come with it; because the black market would dodge the tax, the projected $1.4 billion in revenues will never materialize. Because the initiative lends itself to corporatization of the marijuana trade, it will also generate a new kind of cartel – a small set of corporations with strong vested interests in manipulating public policy. Perhaps worst of all, it creates a government addiction to vice: the State will have a financial interest in citizens lighting up, which will conflict with the broader objective of sobriety (or at least restraint).
The proposal to tax marijuana relies on two very dangerous presumptions: that California’s fiscal problems are the result of insufficient taxes, rather than exorbitant spending, and that the State should treat politically marginalized groups – those who consume cigarettes, alcohol, gasoline, and now weed – as beasts of burden, to support the ever expanding government bureaucracy.
The consequences of Prop 19 are clear: less freedom and more government controls. If Californians want to legalize marijuana, Prop 19 simply won’t do it. We need an alternative that will very simply remove possession, consumption, and trade of marijuana from the penal code, which would reduce costs for the criminal justice system and promote competition. If Californians also want to tax marijuana, they should do so by including it in the sales tax, not by imposing additional excise taxes.