On November 2nd, California voters will be asked to determine whether they’d like to change the legal status of marijuana, and for the first time ever, advocates of legalization may actually accomplish their goals. There are a number of reasons why a well-intentioned voter would choose legalization, from the potential billions of dollars in tax revenue to the reduced burden of non-violent drug cases on a mired legal system. Unfortunately, without the opportunity to vote for decriminalization rather than full legalization, these voters are being presented with a false choice between a senseless century-old prohibition policy and a new option designed not to maximize the safety of California’s citizens, but rather to greatly enrich a chosen few.
Proposition 19 – Marijuana legalization and taxation
Proponents of Proposition 19 have many valid arguments working in their favor. Foremost among them is the simple but wide-reaching argument that marijuana users, like users of most other drugs, should not be jailed for their personal use. Study after study shows that the vast majority of those who experiment with drugs do not develop dependence or addiction problems, and that those who do develop such problems benefit far more from addiction treatment than from incarceration. In fact, supporters of legalization often cite Portugal as an example of a country that has reaped great social benefit from treating drug abuse and possession as a public health, rather than criminal, issue. Portugal, however, has never legalized any drug; their possession, rather, has been decriminalized, while the drug trade itself remains illegal. The crucial benefit of this approach speaks to the strength of market forces: by keeping drugs illegal, we keep them expensive enough to provide a disincentive to serious and widespread abuse. If fully legalized, the extreme reduction in cost, along with the clever and predatory marketing of marijuana in less stigmatized formats- cookies, lollipops, teas – could drive use up far closer to the levels currently seen for alcohol abuse, and with 15 million American dependent on alcohol, we all know how that fight is going. Given the high public cost of treatment and the correlated increase in depression, schizophrenia, and other related disorders, the perceived financial windfall of legalization may be nothing more than a cloud of smoke. The increase in use however is almost certain.
Driving while high – Polydrug use and marijuana
There is also the question of road safety. While proponents of marijuana are quick to point to a handful of studies that proclaim low to no risk when operating a motor vehicle, they are often too eager to ignore numerous other studies including simulation studies and research from countries such as Australia and Canada, which keep national databases on accident statistics. In Australia, one such study found a 300% to 600% increase in fatal car accidents when drivers were positive for THC (depending on concentration), and Canadian studies have shown that the combination of marijuana and alcohol can be more dangerous for drivers than the combination of alcohol and benzodiazapines. Given that nearly half of individuals admitted to drug addiction treatment include marijuana among their polydrug use pattern, the notion that newly legal marijuana users would not combine their pot use with alcohol or other drugs seems highly dubious. It certainly won’t help that drivers might suddenly be able to buy their weed brownies in the same place as their Bud Light.
Legalization versus decriminalization – Who really benefits from prop 19?
There is no doubt, however, about the one California group that stands to unequivocally gain from the legalization, not decriminalization, of marijuana- the entrepreneurs that have staked their claim to what they see as potentially a very big business. Decriminalization, by diverting marijuana users from the legal system and focusing our efforts on getting compulsive users into treatment, will both save taxpayer money and do far more for public health than legalization or the status-quo. What it will not do is make men like Richard Lee, Oakland’s major marijuana-sales benefactor and one of Prop 19’s biggest financial supporters, any richer. As California voters cast their ballot in a few short weeks, they should by all means carefully consider making a statement about our nation’s failed drug policies and misplaced law enforcement priorities. They should also carefully consider the solution that isn’t being presented as an option- and why.