Pubdate: Sat, 24 Apr 2010
Source: Long Beach Press-Telegram (CA)
Copyright: 2010 Los Angeles Newspaper Group
Author: Thomas Elias
Bookmark: (Opinion)


Cannabis is not alcohol and the current confusion about marijuana 
does not constitute a situation anything like Prohibition.

There's a sense among a lot of Californians that legalizing marijuana 
and then taxing it is some sort of panacea that would solve many law 
enforcement problems, make it safer to smoke pot and also produce a 
tax bonanza of $1 billion or more per year.

Voters will see just such a proposal in November.

Much of the pro-legalization thinking is based on analogies to the 
alcohol experience, which sees various forms of booze putting about 
$3 billion into the coffers of state and local governments each year 
and providing more than 300,000 jobs around the state.

But cannabis is not alcohol and the current confusion about marijuana 
does not constitute a situation anything like Prohibition.

For one thing, major distilling companies had produced whiskey, beer 
and other alcoholic beverages legally for many decades before 
Prohibition. By contrast, not a single significant taxpaying company 
has produced so much as an ounce of pot in this state or nation in 
the last century, if ever.

Yes, criminal elements did control much of the booze trade during 
Prohibition and they did foment gang warfare during the 1920s and 
early '30s. But backyard breweries and distilleries were far more 
rare than pot gardens are today. And when it came to larger-scale 
production, foreigners were rarely involved. So it was far easier to 
bring alcohol into the realm of legitimate business than is likely 
with legalized pot.

Then there's the matter of federal law. When Prohibition ended, so 
did most federal alcohol raids. But Californians have their heads in 
the sand if they believe a state vote to legalize pot will end all 
federal raids on growers and gardens.

Yes, President Obama indicated while campaigning in 2008 that he most 
likely would not hassle mom and pop medical marijuana operations, 
from growers to dispensaries. And raids have eased off considerably 
since his election, even if they have not completely stopped. Obama 
and his attorney general, Eric Holder, reserve the option to raid 
under the constitutional provision giving federal law precedence over 
state laws.

Obama never said a positive word about recreational marijuana, not 
covered by the 1996 Proposition 215, which made medpot legal in this 
state but authorized no other sort of use. Sure, plenty of pot users 
pay $40 or $50 to shady doctors who hand out the "recommendations" 
needed to get marijuana at dispensaries that have proliferated in 
some counties. That's a subterfuge and an end-run around the law, but 
falls far short of open defiance of federal law, which full 
legalization would amount to.

Many precedents suggest such defiance would cause the federal Drug 
Enforcement Administration to restart serious anti-pot enforcement 
efforts again if recreational use is "legalized."

Then there are the matters of price and taxation. The sales and 
excise levies that would produce the largest share of taxes 
anticipated by backers of legalization depend directly both on price 
and the openness of sales.

How likely are pot prices to remain at their present level of $10 per 
ounce or more? Not very, if every pot user can suddenly grow his or 
her own in a backyard or a window box. Which means estimates of the 
tax take from legalization are probably far higher than it would 
really be - especially if most pot became home grown and not subject 
to any taxation at all other than what new growers might pay head 
shops for seeds or small plants.

And how likely are the big commercial pot growers - those who 
maintain heavily armed cadres of illegal immigrants around their 
often-boobytrapped gardens in national forests and other woodlands - 
to allow themselves to be taxed?

With legalization already likely to bring the street price of pot 
down, the drug cartels behind many of today's illicit operations 
won't want to give a nickel to the tax man.

They may, in fact, engage in some kind of warfare against growers who 
do pay taxes and let themselves be regulated. They won't take kindly 
to competition or to having their street dealers made irrelevant.

Which means legalization could bring to California the kind of drug 
wars that now plague countries like Mexico and Colombia, where gangs 
and cartels openly defy police. It's a Third World horror scene 
California need not inflict on itself.

None of that even mentions the moral and medical questions often 
raised both by doctors and police: What is the social benefit of 
legalizing a mind-altering substance that produces passivity and 
lethargy? And what about addiction, anxiety and psychosis, three 
conditions the Harvard Mental Health Letter says (in its April issue) 
may be associated with regular pot use.

All of which means that life will surely not become simpler if pot 
were legalized, nor would the benefits be as clear-cut as proponents suggest. 
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