Pubdate: Wed, 02 Dec 2009
Source: Topeka Capital-Journal (KS)
Copyright: 2009 The Topeka Capital-Journal
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

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

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'

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  for it 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
- -- unregulated and untaxed --  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 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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