Sure, supporters of recreational marijuana use probably cried victory when the states of Colorado and Washington legalized the recreational use of cannabis in 2012, a historic move. But as of February 5, 2013, advocates of marijuana legalization may have something to really celebrate about. On Tuesday, two Democratic members of the House of Representatives, Jared Polis (D-CO) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), introduced a pair of bills that, if passed, would dramatically alter our current policy on marijuana.
Polis presented the House with the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act. Just as the name suggests, it would end the federal prohibition on marijuana, whether for medical or recreational use. The decision to legalize it would thus fall in the hands of states and local governments. Though marijuana would be legalized at the federal level, states could still legalize it or not, at their leisure and without the interference of government agencies, notably the Drug Enforcement Agency. If marijuana were to be legalized in a state it would be federally regulated in a similar fashion to alcohol. Under the bill, federal permits would be administered to growers, for example.
Blumenauer, meanwhile, introduced the Marijuana Tax Equity Act. If passed, the taxation framework that currently applies to alcohol and tobacco will provide the template for the one applied to marijuana. A 50% excise tax would be put on the sale of marijuana from growers to distributors, and an annual fee would be demanded from producers and businesses profiting from marijuana. Though probably not a popular suggestion among the masses, this bill would definitely lend more traction and appeal to the pursuit of ending pot prohibition.
In fact, Blumenauer states, “[t]here is an opportunity for us to make, at a minimum, a $100 billion difference over the next 10 years.” That’s billions of dollars in revenue simply by legalizing a drug that—let’s face it—many of us enjoy regardless of its legality. If that wasn’t convincing enough, looking at how much money this country would save by decriminalizing marijuana use is simply astonishing. Of all of the drug arrests made in 2011, 44% of them were simply for marijuana possession. According to the Cato Institute, $5.5 billion is spent every year for the enforcement of this antiquated policy. So, not only would we gain billions from taxing pot but also get back billions by legalizing it.
Non-monetary costs would concurrently be avoided. If convicted of misdemeanor possession of drugs, one could be sentenced to up to a year in jail, up to a 2,000-dollar fine, and a suspension of one’s driver’s license for up to 90 days. This will not only severely restrict your employment options, but the time spent in jail could be spent working or being a productive member of society, hindering the individual and depriving the community of possible benefits the individual could provide. Felony charges have even more far-reaching effects. This is certainly not to say that using substances will be completely accepted. Polis acknowledges that, “while substance abuse is a real problem we need to address, we need to address it increasingly as a public-health issue more than a criminal issue.” In the process of making it a public-health issue, legalized pot would be regulated to ensure purity and safety; reliance on the dangerous black market for pot would no longer be necessary. This outlook towards decriminalization and legalization is not only economically beneficial but socially responsible.
Though the polarization and gridlock we see in Congress will make the passage of these two bills a long shot, Blumenauer assures us that this is only the beginning. “These are the first two of what will probably be eight, 10 bills or more,” he says. And even though this is not the first time Congress has considered federal marijuana policy reform, the current strength of public support for legalization is unprecedented. The momentum to change the status quo is the strongest it has ever been and is fueled by an even stronger support base. A Gallup poll conducted in 2012 indicated that 50% of Americans believe pot should be permissible and 70% believe it should be able to be prescribed. These are record-high percentages for legalization; the scope of support has broadened to a point that Congress can no longer ignore.
I believe many Americans have deemed the “war against drugs” a failure, as evidenced by the growing congressional support for marijuana reform on both sides of the aisle. There is no doubt that the public has spoken, as seen in Colorado and Washington. Perhaps Congress, albeit sluggish in meeting the needs of the people, will consider the growing advocacy for this change and reflect it in its decision-making. Even if Congress were to pass both bills, there would be many kinks to iron out. Still, it’s a start.
—Angela Della Croce ‘15 is an Economics major.