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Legalize marijuana? Ammiano might be on to something

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POSTED February 27, 2009 4:43 a.m.
Tom Ammiano is pushing a bill in the Assembly to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in California.

It would be easy to dismiss this as an opportunistic move by a San Francisco liberal to use the state’s current budget crisis as the gateway, so to speak, to legalize pot by proclaiming it could raise billions of dollars in additional tax money every year.

An analysis predicts a $50 an ounce tax would generate $1.3 billion year in new state taxes, drop its street value by 50 percent and increase consumption by 40 percent. There are some people, though, who argue Ammiano is all wet about the 40 percent jump in consumption since pot is so readily available right now that they don’t expect much of a jump.

What Ammiano is proposing makes sense on several levels.

First, if we’re worried about gateway drugs that destroy people’s lives and cost billions of dollars in future health care costs why do we exclude alcohol and cigarettes from such labels? Consider the chance of being killed or seriously maimed by someone who is drunk on alcohol and driving and the financial costs associated with such an accident. Yes, pot can intoxicate a user but given its widespread use it is doubtful you’ll see the number of driving under the influence deaths skyrocket if it was legalized.

Our criminal justice system is overburdened. By decriminalizing marijuana you ease some of the burden. I respect those in law enforcement who would argue it is a bad idea because it “legalizes” another intoxicant. However, the amount of energy devoted to marijuana law enforcement has waned for obvious reasons – police have to prioritize their resources. Citing for marijuana possession under an ounce certainly isn’t a sign of a zero tolerance policy.

Ammiano is proposing that those over 21 years of age be allowed to grow, buy, sell, and possess marijuana.

Such a move should be matched by a requirement that anyone who grows marijuana for sale must have a special state resale license. It should also be treated like cigarettes and alcohol with even stiffer consequences. The police should have the power to question anyone who is selling marijuana and demand a copy of their license to do so. If they don’t have one, it should be mandatory on the first offense that the state seizes all assets being used in the sale and transportation of pot that is owned by the offender. That way compliance to the licensing requirement should be a minimal problem. The license also should be a nice healthy price tag like $1,000 a year.

Anyone caught supplying anyone under the age of 21 with pot – whether they sell it or give it to them –should face a mandatory $1,000 fine on their first conviction or asset seizure of equal value. The second offense could be $10,000 with each offense there after $25,000.

Such measures would address concerns that marijuana would become to easy to grow and therefore impossible to monitor for revenue collection purposes.    It would chill the proliferation of a black market which, as it stands now, pretty much operates with impunity.

By giving law enforcement – read that revenuers or the state’s equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service – broad seizure powers you will be able to substantially reduce the existing black market.

Ammino’s proposal would be also more palatable if employers or others who had to rely on people in positions of trust such as volunteer-based non-profits were able to continue to fire anyone who tests positive for marijuana use with impunity.

That may be a bit chilling given the fact marijuana leaves a residue in the system but a nation that monkeys around with DNA and replicating life certainly can create a test that offers enough latitude to determine toxicity levels that reflect judgment and coordination being impaired. Besides, if someone is worried about being fired, then don’t smoke marijuana before work, on the job or during breaks. It would be no different than alcohol although admittedly the standard would be a little tougher.

This country has a history of making vices legal to control and tax them. Cigarettes and alcohol are prime examples while government takes an active role in the promotion of gambling for its own benefit.

There is no dispute about how addictive behavior connected with any vice can be destructive.

I have never smoked or used drugs. Once I had a taste of beer and that was enough for me. As far as gambling, I got over any interest years ago as you can’t lose unless you play.

I have no problem with pot being legalized for those over 21 providing it is heavily taxed including annual licenses for authorization to grow and sell plus the penalties for violating the law being extremely oppressive. You’d probably end up with a tighter control on marijuana than we now have with it being illegal.

Besides, if trends in California are any indication, the more you tax something like cigarettes, the more people stop using them.

From that angle, the best way to control the spread of marijuana is to do the same thing the government does to stop the free spread of entrepreneur behavior – tax it to death.

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