Legalizing Marijuana Could Save Atlantic City

Eric Lieberman Advocate, Young Voices
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Atlantic City has every reason to thrive. With legal gambling, coastal beaches, prime entertainment events, and fine dining, the resort town should be flourishing.

But as most of the country knows, Atlantic City is in decline.

Extremely expensive and extravagant casinos are closing while thousands of jobs are being lost. Human capital is leaving in droves and the once salubrious city is now more reminiscent of a ghost town with a beach motif. Mayor Don Guardian has even contemplated the city declaring bankruptcy.

One unorthodox idea to reverse the city’s decline has been proposed by Trenton Assemblyman Reed Gusciora — legalize and tax marijuana. This idea might sound novel, but the experiences of Colorado and Washington convey that it can be a practical and significant catalyst for prosperity.

A major factor behind the city’s decline has been a growth in the number of casinos in New Jersey’s neighboring states. This has allowed many casino-goers and thrillseekers to remain in their home state to get their gambling fix.

Unfortunately, Atlantic City just isn’t the lively tourist attraction it once was, and the casino industry isn’t going to change. Governor Christie’s $260 million tax break giveaway is proof that more and better casinos are not a realistic recovery plan.

Clearly the best way to return the once bustling beach town to its former glory is to further the theme of providing unequal access to the world’s most beloved pleasures. In other words, like they did in 1976 with gambling, Atlantic City should legalize marijuana.

There are a multitude of reasons — both economic and social — to support this proposal. Increased job growth from cannabis cultivation companies, reduced incarceration rates, and increased tax revenue would all be on the horizon if Atlantic City opened up pot to everyday commerce.

In 2014, within the first year of legalizing marijuana, Washington state collected nearly $83 million in taxes for marijuana alone. Similarly, Colorado collected a combined $76 million in taxes and licensing fees in the same year. The industry in Colorado was worth $700 million in 2014 and is expected to exceed $1 billion in 2016, so tax revenue will only grow.

And the societal benefits don’t end there. The money raised from marijuana taxation in other states is being spent on fruitful and important causes. Colorado states that $13.3 million of the $73.5 million dollars collected in just the first half of 2015 is going to fund public schools. If Atlantic City took the same approach they might be able to improve their dismal 70 percent high school graduation rate, which is below the state average of 86 percent, and the national average of 80 percent.

It is certainly better for the government to tax the victimless substance and spend the proceeds on education, rather than wasting their already limited resources on the prosecution of weekend vacationers’ petty drug offenses.

Marijuana is one of the country’s biggest cash crops, with some studies claiming it takes the top spot. People want to consume marijuana, so why not open the relatively untapped market in Atlantic City?

Some people argue that the potential dangers of marijuana use outweigh the economic benefits of legalization. People worry that cannabis legalization will lead to increased youth consumption and potentially more impaired drivers, creating an insurmountable amount of danger on the roads. But evidence suggests these concerns are overblown, and perhaps even erroneous.

Studies reveal that drunk driving and texting while driving are both far more dangerous than driving under the influence of marijuana. And evidence from Washington shows that the amount of traffic fatalities remained stable after legalization. In the case of Colorado, they even decreased to “near-historic lows”.

Fears of an increase in adolescent drug use have also proven unfounded.

Most importantly, current case studies point to less violent crime in both Colorado and Washington despite—or perhaps even because—they legalized marijuana. With crime above the national average — including assault, rape, and murder — Atlantic City could benefit from such an approach.

If Atlantic City was willing to circumvent federal law by legalizing gambling, why not do the same for other popular pastimes?

Legalizing marijuana could finally bring Atlantic City out of the red and into the green.

Eric Lieberman is a Young Voices Advocate, and a native of Philadelphia. Eric researches public policy,  with an emphasis in technology and comparative politics.