Pubdate: Sun, 23 Aug 2015
Source: Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, AZ)
Copyright: 2015 Arizona Daily Star
Author: Tim Steller


When I was 9 years old, a few older playmates from my 
fourth-through-sixth grade class started disappearing at lunchtime 
recesses. It took a long time before I found out what they were 
doing, somewhere off school grounds.

They were smoking pot.

This came to mind last week when proponents of Arizona's main 
marijuana-legalization effort pledged to provide $40 million per year 
in marijuana tax revenue for education if their initiative passes.

Even though I'm an instinctive advocate of legalization, I agreed 
when Arizona's Republican Party chairman, Robert Graham, called the 
pro-legalization event a "pathetic display."  What's pathetic is the 
suggestion that $40 million means anything significant to a state 
public school system that spends around $4.7 billion of state money every year.

The tax money derived from legalization may leave a small benefit, 
but the better arguments for legalization are about the failure of 
marijuana prohibition, and the respect for the freedom of adults to 
make their own choices. These, plus possible possible health impacts 
of legalization, should be the key issues if the proposed initiatives 
make it to Arizona's ballot in 2016.

Back in 1977, I could have told you that prohibition was not stopping 
the sale and consumption of marijuana, even by fifth and sixth 
graders in the deep cold of a Minneapolis winter. It still isn't 
working. Nevertheless, we've built up a massive prohibition apparatus 
to interdict marijuana, seize stashes and arrest and imprison sellers.

Each city or county has its own counter-narcotics task force. State 
police and prosecutors chase down dealers. And several federal 
agencies are dedicated to investigating cartels and traffickers - 
DEA, HSI, CBP among others. Seizures of marijuana by the U.S. Border 
Patrol in the Tucson sector went from 200,000 pounds in 2000 to more 
than 1 million pounds in 2013.

While these agents also pursue the dealers and loads of other drugs - 
cocaine, heroin, meth - marijuana remains a mainstay of our 
enforcement mechanism, and a central product on the black market. 
Untold millions of dollars still go into the effort to stop it. Yet 
it remains readily available on the black market.

In the Tucson area, the annals of crimes connected to the black 
market for marijuana would fill volumes. One of the cases that sticks 
with me is the murder of Carlos Sandoval, a 17-year-old Salpointe 
Catholic High School senior, on New Year's Eve in 2011. Sandoval, a 
promising student despite the drug involvement, was going to sell a 
pound of marijuana to a group of young people; One of them decided to 
rob him instead and ended up killing him.

Another is the killing of Jose Guerena by a Pima County SWAT team, 
also in 2011. Members of Guerena's extended family were involved in 
smuggling marijuana, but it was never clear if he himself was. The 
former Marine had finished working a night shift at Asarco's Mission 
Mine and was sleeping when the SWAT team pounded on his door. They 
say he pointed a gun at them when they came in. The officers fired 71 
shots and killed him.

Both cases are consequences of marijuana prohibition and the 
resulting black market, something legalization would help end.

When I told Barrett Marson, a spokesman for the pro-legalization 
campaign, about my skepticism over tax revenue as an argument for 
legalization, he reassured me.

"All it is from our perspective is a side benefit. The real benefit 
is the end of prohibition,"  he said.

His colleague in the campaign, chairman J.P. Holyoak, put it this way 
to me: "If our initiative is successful at the ballot box. It puts a 
huge dent in the black market."

While it wouldn't eliminate the black market completely, he said, it 
would reduce it to the tiny size of the black markets you see today 
in legal products like cigarettes or alcohol.

Interestingly, some in the pro-legalization camp say the "Campaign to 
Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol,"  which is sponsored by a national 
group called the Marijuana Policy Project, doesn't do enough to end 
prohibition and open up the legal marijuana market.

A group calling itself Safer Arizona is trying to get a competing 
initiative on the ballot called the Legalization and Regulation of 
Marijuana Act.

This group's effort is small and local, and, to be frank, unlikely to 
make the ballot. Organizers have only about 6,000 of the 150,642 
valid signatures needed by July 7, 2016. The Marijuana Policy 
Project's effort, by contrast, is well funded has around 60,000 
signatures already.

The Safer Arizona campaign's spokesman, Dave Wisniewski, pointed out 
the Marijuana Policy Project's initiative limits the number of 
licensed retailers to 160 statewide, as opposed to 10 times that many 
in his group's initiative. The larger group's initiative also leaves 
in place laws that make it a felony to possess amounts those 
prescribed in their initiative. For example, cultivation of more than 
six marijuana plants per adult or 12 per household would remain a felony.

"We're convinced that their law is more like a complex form of 
prohibition,"  Wisniewski said.

The chief argument against legalization of any form so far has been 
about the harmful health effects that consuming marijuana has on 
young people's brains. To me, that's a valid concern. Anyone who's 
known a pothead has seen how users' thinking seems to slow as their 
brain loses sharpness. Those effects are especially damaging to 
young, developing brains.

The Arizona Republican Party has taken that argument and run with it, 
joining forces with a group called Arizonans for Responsible Drug 
Policy to fight the legalization efforts. The group's chairman, Seth 
Leibsohn, pointed out to me Friday that more teens illegally use 
alcohol, a legal and regulated substance, than marijuana, still illegal.

"We don't allow alcohol for anyone under 21, and yet it's still 
available to people in high school and people under 21,"  Leibsohn 
said. "Illegality is itself a message. Once you legalize something, 
you destigmatize it. The message being sent is it's not so bad."

That may be so, and I worry about the effects of legalization, too. 
But decades of prohibition have shown that illegality has not been 
much of a deterrent. Meanwhile, prohibition itself - the drug war 
apparatus, the black market and all the connected casualties - has 
left its own trail of damage.

That's the argument that convinces me. That, plus those memories from 
fourth grade.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom