Pubdate: Sun, 29 Nov 2009
Source: Abilene Reporter-News (TX)
Copyright: 2009 Abilene Reporter-News
Author: George Will
Note: George F. Will is a columnist for The Washington Post and Newsweek.
Referenced: How Pot Became Legal
Bookmark: (Opinion)
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal - United States)


DENVER -- Inside the green neon sign, which is shaped  like a
marijuana leaf, is a red cross. The cross serves  the fiction that
most transactions in the store --  which is what it really is --
involve medicine.

The U.S. Justice Department recently announced that  federal laws
against marijuana would not be enforced  for possession of marijuana
that conforms to states'  laws. In 2000, Colorado legalized medical

Since Justice's decision, the average age of the 400  people a day
seeking "prescriptions" at Colorado's  multiplying medical marijuana
dispensaries has fallen  precipitously. Many new customers are college

Customers -- this, not patients, is what most really  are -- tell
doctors at the dispensaries that they  suffer from insomnia, anxiety,
headaches, premenstrual  syndrome, "chronic pain," whatever, and pay
nominal  fees for "prescriptions." Most really just want to  smoke

So says Colorado's attorney general, John Suthers, an  honest and
thoughtful man trying to save his state from  institutionalizing such
hypocrisy. His dilemma is  becoming commonplace: 13 states have, and
15 more are  considering, laws permitting medical use of marijuana.

Realizing they could not pass legalization of  marijuana, some people
who favor that campaigned to  amend Colorado's Constitution to
legalize sales for  medicinal purposes. Marijuana has medical uses --
e.g.,  to control nausea caused by chemotherapy -- but the  helpful
ingredients can be conveyed with other  medicines.

Today, Colorado communities can use zoning to restrict  dispensaries,
or can ban them because, even if federal  policy regarding medical
marijuana is passivity,  selling marijuana remains against federal
law. But  Colorado's probable future has unfolded in California,
which in 1996 legalized sales of marijuana to people  with doctors'

Fifty-six percent of Californians support legalization,  and Roger
Parloff reports ("How Marijuana Became Legal"  in the Sept. 28
Fortune) that they essentially have  this. He notes that many
California "patients" arrive  at dispensaries "on bicycles, roller
skates or  skateboards." A Los Angeles city councilman estimates  that
there are about 600 dispensaries in the city. If  so, they outnumber
the Starbucks stores there.

The councilman wants to close dispensaries whose intent  is profit
rather than "compassionate" distribution of  medicine. Good luck with
that: Privacy considerations  will shield doctors from investigations
of their  lucrative 15-minute transactions with "patients."

Colorado's medical marijuana dispensaries have hired  lobbyists to
seek taxation and regulation, for the same  reason Nevada's brothel
industry wants to be taxed and  regulated by the state: The Nevada
Brothel Association  regards taxation as legitimation and insurance
against  prohibition as the booming state's frontier mentality  recedes.

State governments, misunderstanding markets and  ravenous for
revenues, exaggerate the potential  windfall from taxing legalized

California thinks it might reap $1.4 billion. But  Rosalie Pacula, a
RAND Corp. economist, estimates that  prohibition raises marijuana
production costs at least  400 percent, so legalization would cause
prices to fall  much more than the 50 percent the $1.4 billion
estimate  assumes.

Furthermore, marijuana is a normal good in that demand  for it varies
with price. Legalization, by drastically  lowering price, will
increase marijuana's public health  costs.

States attempting to use high taxes to keep marijuana  prices
artificially high would leave a large market for  much cheaper illegal
- -- unregulated and untaxed --  marijuana. So revenues (and law
enforcement savings)  would depend on the price falling close to the
cost of  production.

Suthers has multiple drug-related worries. Colorado  ranks sixth in
the nation in identity theft, two-thirds  of which is driven by the
state's $1.4 billion annual  methamphetamine addiction. He is loath to
see complete  legalization of marijuana at a moment when new methods
of cultivation are producing plants in which the active  ingredient,
THC, is "seven, eight times as  concentrated" as it used to be.

Furthermore, he was pleasantly surprised when a survey  of nonusing
young people revealed that health concerns  did not explain nonuse.
The main explanation was the  law: "We underestimate the number of
people who care  that something is illegal."

But they will care less as law itself loses its  dignity. By mocking
the idea of lawful behavior,  legalization of medical marijuana may be
more socially  destructive than full legalization.
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