Pubdate: Tue, 1 Dec 2009
Source: Winona Daily News (MN)
Copyright: 2009 Winona Daily News
Author: George Will
Bookmark: (George Will)
Bookmark: (Opinion)


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

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 pot.

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. Medical marijuana 
was legalized but, Suthers says, no serious regime was then developed 
to regulate who could buy - or grow - it. (Caregivers? For how many 
patients? And in what quantities, and for what "medical uses.")

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 persons with doctors' "prescriptions."

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 period.

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 
marijuana. California thinks it might reap $1.4 billion. But Rosalie 
Pacula, a RAND Corporation 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 varies with 
price. Legalization, by drastically lowering price, will increase 
marijuana's public health costs, including mental and respiratory 
problems, and motor vehicle accidents.

States attempting to use high taxes to keep marijuana prices 
artificially high would leave a large market for much cheaper illegal 
marijuana. So revenues (and law enforcement savings) would depend on 
the price falling close to the cost of production. In the 1990s, a 
mere $2 per pack difference between U.S. and Canadian cigarette 
prices created such a smuggling problem that Canada repealed a 
cigarette tax increase.

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 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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