Make something people enjoy and want to buy and you can make some money. Make that same thing illegal and you can make a lot of money. If there is one lesson we should have learned from the prohibition it is that people will indulge in their vices and are willing to pay a premium for the chance to do so. California has the opportunity in November to decriminalize the recreational use of marijuana, adding a boon to its debt laden economy, and support for this measure is growing on both the right and the left.
Take a quick walk around Venice, California and you can see a promising industry already emerging. Dispensaries, marijuana clubs and good old fashioned head shops are scattered all about this west Los Angeles district. The legendary Venice boardwalk has a bevy of such places, often with different variations of the word 'Kush' and a fragrant earthy aroma wafting through the air. The medicinal marijuana economy looks to be doing well in the Golden State.
Many Californians want to go one step further and make recreational marijuana legal, regulate it and tax it. This is no longer the stuff of the political rants of hippies and Rastafarians but has gone mainstream, often with young fiscal conservatives in expensive suits touting the economic benefits of legalization. Money always talks and perhaps louder than ever in the state of California which is facing a current estimated budget deficit of $26.3 billion. Over the past year Governor Schwarzenegger has entertained near draconian budget cuts, from closing over 200 state parks to forcing state workers to take unpaid furloughs to cutting billions of dollars in funding to K-12 and community colleges. Californians have been up in arms over the proposed cuts but also have been opposed to higher taxes. Something has to give - in walks Mary Jane.
Marijuana is now seriously being touted for its economic benefit. According to the California Board of Equalization, BOE, Californians use just over one million pounds of marijuana per year. The proposal by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano would place a $50 per ounce fee on retail sales of marijuana in the state, generating roughly $1.4 billion in revenue. The potential for helping alleviate California's budget woes doesn't end there. Based on national figures, the cost for the arrest and prosecution of marijuana related offenses in California is nearly $500 million per year with an additional quarter of a billion spent on incarceration. Adding the tax revenue to potential savings gives the state over $2 billion per year, which is almost a tenth of the current deficit. Obviously, it is not a magic bullet to solve the budget crisis but it does make significant progress to bringing the deficit down.
There are, of course, other considerations. The same national figures I cited earlier estimate it will cost $70 million per year to establish a regulatory body and add marijuana awareness programs for our youth. Other critics have cited health care costs ranging from legitimate, increases in lung cancer, to the questionable, marijuana addled addicts missing work and causing general chaos. There are also concerns as to whether people will pay the $50 tax to buy through legal retail establishments or will continue going to a local dealer who sells it cheaper.
This is where both liberals and conservatives can stop bogarting the mistakes of the prohibition and embrace the groovy machinations of the free market. Many same concerns were raised in regards to ending prohibition, and certainly there are medical and social costs we have seen as a result, but the United States did not go to hell in a handbasket as a result. The BOE also estimates that California produces over $35 billion worth of marijuana each year. The question of whether it should be legalized comes down again to dollars and sense, common sense.
Once a clear market is in place, the invisible hand of Adam Smith will enter and pass that joint along. One thing we Americans are good at is seizing an economic opportunity and it won't take long for the new Berkeley grads, venture capitalists and corporate titans to create an innovative and robust market place for marijuana retail. Delivery services already exist for medicinal purposes but that would be just the beginning. Imagine the Starbucks of marijuana shops dotting the corners of streets from San Diego to Sacramento. There will be upscale and premium offerings, paired nicely with couture paraphernalia and plush leather chairs and set against the backdrop of adult contemporary music. Surely someone will open a place called something like Doobies and Munchies and you can smoke a bowl of LA Confidential before ordering a grilled cheese with bacon. And these capitalists will demand that all resellers play by the rules. The mom and pop pot shops will be driven out of business and the black market will diminish as pushers move on to more lucrative products. The BOE estimates that use will increase and street value will diminish but I am betting on good old American ingenuity to make this new green economy thrive.
Even if legalizing marijuana exceeds fiscal expectations, there is still a lot California will need to do to address the deficit but it is a step in the right direction. The war on drugs has been an abysmal failure only bolstering the economic windfall of selling illegal substances. Perhaps this is an instance when we can say 'make money, not war' and puff puff pass the bill.