On maps where activists track their progress nationally, they can already block out 10 states—among them, California, Colorado, Massachusetts and New York—where the first offense involving simple possession no longer carries jail time.

In 2007, Texas legislators gave Texas law enforcement a choice in misdemeanor possession cases of less than four ounces: Police could continue to arrest, jail and process those who possess small amounts of pot, or they could simply cite them with a ticket and send them on their way, based on their promise to appear in court. Few police departments took up the Legislature on its offer, resisting the change despite its savings in time and money. Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle recalls speaking with the Dallas City Council's Public Safety Committee and getting a negative reaction to ticketing misdemeanor pot cases. "It's a public policy issue. I don't have a preference either way if we're directed not to make arrests in certain marijuana-type situations."

The image makeover from medical marijuana may shift that public reaction, including in Texas where polls have shown strong support for medical marijuana in cases of serious illness. And there are other important factors propelling the legalization movement: the violence and obscene profits of the drug cartels. Those problems have given rise to the Al Capone argument: If you make it legal, criminal dealers can't command exorbitant sums from customers desperate for a high—cash that would later be spent on bribes, machine guns and smuggling. Licensed, fully vetted growers, operating just down the street, would render the bloody drug kingpin as irrelevant as the Chicago bootlegger.

Cannabis plants grown by students at Oaksterdam University, a trade school for the cannabis industry, are shown at the school in Oakland,  California, July 23, 2009. Students are educated on marijuana law and  cultivation techniques and are on the forefront of a new industry as  cities like Oakland look to tax medical marijuana dispensaries.
REUTERS/Robert Galbraith
Cannabis plants grown by students at Oaksterdam University, a trade school for the cannabis industry, are shown at the school in Oakland, California, July 23, 2009. Students are educated on marijuana law and cultivation techniques and are on the forefront of a new industry as cities like Oakland look to tax medical marijuana dispensaries.
Medical marijuana supporter Bruce Mirken stands handcuffed to the fence at the White House in 2002.
rlw/Roger L. Wollenberg UPI
Medical marijuana supporter Bruce Mirken stands handcuffed to the fence at the White House in 2002.

In the words of Mirken, "You don't need Al Capone to ship alcohol when you have Anheuser Busch."

As with many things in the United States, a good idea can become a great one if it involves making money—and doubly so if it generates new forms of tax revenue. Thus at a time of housing foreclosures and bank failures, when California's state government faces a whopping $21 billion projected budget deficit and the city of Los Angeles is sinking under $983 million in red ink, licensing and taxing marijuana suddenly make sense even to some who might have abhorred the idea.

Lawful growers and retailers could cough up, say, $50 an ounce in taxes or fees and still charge less to consumers than the prices common on the black market. Governments would rake it in—and also save a fantastic amount on arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning pot offenders.

Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron, author of the 2004 book Drug War Crimes: The Consequences of Prohibition, makes a case that legalizing all banned drugs would benefit taxpayers nationwide by $77 billion a year, in both generating new tax income and eliminating the costs of arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning offenders. Since marijuana represents about a third of the illicit drug economy, legalizing pot would make a difference of roughly $25 billion, he says.

Miron's estimate is generally in line with figures compiled by pot-advocacy organizations, although getting firm numbers is notoriously difficult given the vastly different ways in which law-enforcement agencies catalog arrests and report marijuana data.

Jon Gettman, a former NORML president who operates a public data bank at drugscience.org, claims that legalizing marijuana would enrich the public by $42 billion a year. In breaking down that sum, Gettman puts the current cost of legal enforcement at nearly $11 billion. He also claims that federal, state and local governments lose out on $31 billion annually in taxes and charges that could be gleaned from the massive industry, based on an overall estimate of a marijuana trade that totals $113 billion a year.

Mirken, the Marijuana Policy Project spokesman, concedes that squishy numbers invite attacks from critics. But he adds, "No doubt it's a big hunk of money."

Watching that money flow to criminals and cartel bosses has added impetus to the push for change.

Pro-marijuana forces, well-financed and increasingly centralized in New York and Washington, D.C., are often directly involved in helping to craft reform legislation because of their deep knowledge about a subject murky to many in power.

The New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, for example, employs 45 people and operates satellite offices in Washington, D.C., and in the states of New Mexico and California. Its annual budget of $8 million comes in part from George Soros' Open Policy Institute and also from about 25,000 small donors and a number of very wealthy businessmen, most notably tech guru John Gilmore of Cygnus Solutions, Peter B. Lewis of Progressive Insurance, John Glen Sperling of the University of Phoenix and George Zimmer of the Men's Wearhouse.

Nadelmann, the organization's 52-year-old top executive, says he spends about half of his time on the road, engaging in debates, giving speeches and conferring with pot advocates to draft voter initiatives and to map out strategies.

Close contact with local groups enables him to marshal resources where they are needed and also to bring hot spots to nationwide media attention. Nadelmann can rattle off lists of issues and locales—the drive that brought medical pot this year to Maine, the statewide decriminalization approved in Massachusetts, the ballot tussles ahead in Arizona, Nevada and Oregon. He claims significant credit for Proposition 215, California's landmark 1996 state ballot measure that authorized medical cannabis.

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