Opinion

If pot is legalized, government will distort the market for it

Last week, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law legislation that reduces the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction. This attempt to decriminalize the possession of marijuana comes on the heels of similar actions taken by several other states, which are apparently convinced that certain drug laws are ineffective at best and contribute to both fiscal and societal chaos at worst. But proponents of legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana place far too much faith in the power of government to alleviate social ills.

Proponents of decriminalization argue that criminalizing marijuana only forces it underground, perpetuating a black market in drug dealing whose associated activities include violent crime and social disorder. Rather than fomenting such unintended consequences, government should instead regulate, tax, and benefit from the orderly sale and distribution of this commodity. Many drug legalization advocates further argue that the revenue generated from taxing marijuana can be used to benefit a whole host of social concerns.

What many in the drug legalization crowd fail to recognize is that government, in its infinite wisdom, will ultimately distort this newly legitimate marketplace to such a degree that it will render the perceived benefits of its creation insignificant. In its zeal to capitalize on what it sees as a major new source of revenue, government will popularize marijuana use among the general public and, through overzealous taxation and regulation, fail to reduce the aforementioned black market and all of its attendant criminality.

Case in point: California’s Proposition 19, while not setting a uniform standard for taxation of marijuana across the state, will allow individual localities the leeway to set their own standards of taxation on the sale and cultivation of marijuana. If Proposition 19 and Measure C — a related measure linked to the passage of Prop 19 — pass, localities will be able to tax marijuana at rates upwards of ten percent.

While Proposition 19 would make the possession and recreational use of marijuana legal in California, levying a ten percent tax on those selling it lawfully, coupled with a host of other fees related to its cultivation, will increase its cost to such a degree that many pot smokers will simply continue to buy their weed from sources unencumbered by the state’s regulations, e.g. drug dealers.

This does not bode well for the proposition that legalizing “harmless” drugs such as marijuana will lessen the prevalence of illicit drug dealers. The state may ultimately generate significant tax revenue from the sale of marijuana, but at what cost? How many new drug users will decide to try marijuana due to the perception that its being legal somehow makes it safe? What are the ramifications on other forms of drug use, given the potential for marijuana to be a gateway drug? Do the potential costs truly outweigh the desired benefits, given that government market distortions will likely only perpetuate the crime and social ills currently associated to its sale and use?

These are all relevant questions that drug legalization advocates should be challenged on. While the benefits of decriminalizing marijuana may be considerable in theory, any optimism should be tempered by the realization that government interventions rarely play out as intended. In this case, the potential harms caused by the passage of Proposition 19 likely outweigh the possible benefits.

Scott G. Erickson is an advocate of conservative, principled solutions to the issues facing America. He has worked to advance conservative priorities through coalition building and is an active participant in myriad organizations seeking to restore the foundational principles of America. A committed public servant, he has worked in the field of law enforcement for the past decade and holds both his B.S. and M.S. in Criminal Justice Studies. He resides in the San Francisco Bay Area.