Is California's Marijuana Measure a Model for All States?


Californians will vote in November on an initiative that would legalize and tax marijuana. If passed, the law would allow anybody over 21 to hold up to an ounce of pot for personal use and grow up to 25 square feet of marijuana per residence.

To learn more about the news, check out this LA Times story. To learn more about why this is good policy, read Andrew and check out editor Nick Gillespie's column in the New York Times.

As for me, I think legalizing pot is a fine idea whose implementation will be more difficult than supporters imagine. On the one hand, I'm for expanding the legalization of drugs and slapping taxes on them.* (That includes lowering the minimum drinking age and raising the federal/state tax on alcohol.) I'm a fan of civil liberties. I'm a fan of taxes. I'm a fan of states not firing thousands of teachers when they face budget shortfalls. Legalizing pot is a three-fore.

Still, while bringing pot's black market into the light could raise quality and safety -- not a huge concern for marijuana, but the argument is there -- the tax will also raise costs, which should keep some sellers and buyers underground. (Today: drug war for public health and security; tomorrow: drug war to recoup tax dollars.) To keep from overshooting on the drug's price, the ideal tax would start around 25 percent.

Tomorrow I'm speaking with Joe Mathews, who studies California tax issues with the New America Foundation, about the future of sin taxes and their potential to raise state and federal revenue, in the name of regulating things that mainstream Americans don't particularly think are wholesome. In the meantime, I'll leave you with what I said six months ago: if Obama smoked more pot, our drug policy wouldn't seem so high.

The government's effort to manage tobacco rather than make it illegal is exactly what belongs in the debate over pot and other illegal substances that could, at the very least, provide significant boons to medical pharmacology. The FDA has rejected the possibility of making cigarettes illegal by saying the underground product would be "even more dangerous than those currently marketed." So when you make popular products illegal, it has the potential to make those products more dangerous. Gee, ya think?

I know that Gee, ya think is about as far as you can get from a comprehensive plan for the controlled legalization of marijuana and other substances. But let's be adults here. Obama understands the limits of cigarette law because he understands the market for cigarettes. Maybe what the drug debate really needs is a joint in the West Wing.

*To say nothing of the utterly absurd war on drugs, which is an enormous waste of police time, prison space, tax money, human life...

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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