It makes far more sense to raise taxes from pot sales than to waste our shrinking resources in a futile effort to stop them.
Trying to twist a tourniquet on the state of California’s still-bleeding finances, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration last week reportedly floated a plan to commute the sentences of 38,000 “low-level” inmates and possibly close state prisons and send the convicts to county jails.
Which must sound like a bit of black humor to Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko. The jail is already routinely full, and early releases are a chronic problem. And on top of that, Bosenko is suggesting that he might have to close a floor or two of the eight-story jail as part of county budget cuts. That will leave local criminals less accountable for their actions even as local police agencies are cutting their staffs.
A recipe for a crime wave? Perhaps, but the looming crisis should also prompt a hard look at what we consider crimes. In particular, let’s take up Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent call for a debate on legalizing and taxing marijuana.
In 2006, the most recent year for which statistics are available, police in California made 65,000 felony and misdemeanor arrests for marijuana. Relatively few of those lawbreakers ended up doing hard time in state prison, but the endless pursuit of marijuana smokers and suppliers is a substantial drain on increasingly scarce law-enforcement resources at every level, from police to courts to probation offices.
And for what? Marijuana use remains common, even among the teenagers whose well-being is the most common rationale for our current drug laws.
Indeed, among teenagers pot smoking appears to be at least as prevalent as tobacco use. A 2006 survey by the California Tobacco Control Program found that about 15.4 percent of high schoolers had smoked a cigarette within the past 30 days, but the state Justice Department’s most recent survey of youth drug use found 15 percent of ninth-graders – and 24 percent of 11th-graders – had used marijuana in the past 30 days.
So the ban isn’t keeping our children safe, even as the profits of an illicit business drive pot growers to take over our backcountry and fuel drug wars that make the headlines from Mexico scarier than those out of Iraq.
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a Democrat from San Francisco, has introduced a bill to legalize marijuana, treating it essentially the same as alcohol. Users would have to be 21 years old. Smoking would still be banned in public, much as liquor is barred in parks. Driving under the influence would still be a crime.
Oh, and dealers would be licensed and taxed, raising an estimated $1.3 billion a year. Heaven knows the state could use the extra money. The budget crisis is forcing massive school cutbacks, dramatic reductions in health services for the poor, the sacking of police and firefighters.
Let’s save a few cops’ and teachers’ jobs by raising money from marijuana sales instead of spending money in a vain attempt to stamp them out. Let’s keep embezzlers and car thieves and repeat DUI drivers locked up over pot dealers whose only crime is supplying consenting adults.
We don’t want to see more marijuana use, especially among young people. But higher taxes and education have steadily cut tobacco use over the years – to trust the numbers, far more effectively than the outright ban on marijuana. Isn’t it time we try what’s worked instead of what’s proven to be a dismal failure?