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December 1, 2012

History lessons and future forecasts concerning pot prohibition

CNN has this lengthy and effective article discussing the history and possible future of marijuana law in the United States.  Here are excerpts from a long piece worth reading in full:

Turn on a television show or open a magazine in the United States today and you're bound to see someone with a drink in hand -- something unthinkable nearly a century ago. Advocates of marijuana hope that someday that drug will emerge from its current "prohibition" period, the same way alcohol did, and become not only legal but as socially acceptable as having a drink....

However pot's future is going to play out in this country, its recent path to limited legalization has interesting parallels to alcohol, which was banned by the federal government in the 1920s and early 1930s.  The Prohibition era gave rise to an underground market for booze, produced by unregulated bootleggers and moonshiners, and consumed in back-alley speakeasies.

A few years after Prohibition's repeal, the federal government banned marijuana, hardly as popular and socially acceptable as alcohol.  It would be decades before supporters of pot would mobilize and successfully get the drug legalized in some states.  Advocates and detractors for both drugs seem to have read from the same playbook, stoking fears based on prejudices and questionable scientific studies.

Rather than discuss issues of substance, opponents of marijuana in the early 20th century preferred to exaggerate its effects and pin its use on foreigners and black entertainers. It was a familiar tactic that had panned out well in pre-Prohibition days.

In a 1914 speech before the House, Rep. Richmond Hobson of Alabama warned that booze would make the "red man" savage and "promptly put a tribe on the war path." He added, "Liquor will actually make a brute of a Negro, causing him to commit unnatural crimes." Twenty-three years later, while arguing for marijuana prohibition, Harry Anslinger also played on Americans' fear of crime and foreigners.  The Bureau of Narcotics chief spun tales of people driven to insanity or murder after ingesting the drug and spoke of the 2 to 3 tons of grass being produced in Mexico. "This, the Mexicans make into cigarettes, which they sell at two for 25 cents, mostly to white high school students," Anslinger told Congress.

The term marijuana itself was intended to stoke alarm, as many Americans in the 1930s were already familiar with other terms for the drug, according to Michael Aldrich.  "(The drug's opponents) preferred the word marijuana instead of cannabis or hemp because people thought it was some new devil drug from Mexico," said Aldrich, the curator of what is now Harvard University's Fitz Hugh Ludlow Memorial Library, a collection of psychoactive drug-related literature....

Just as Prohibition bore Al Capones and strengthened the Frank Costellos and "Lucky" Lucianos, American drug prohibition has spawned a host of cartels south of its border. They wage war against each other for the rights to the most lucrative illegal drug market on Earth -- the United States -- which by some estimates, consumes two-thirds of all the illegal drugs in the world....

When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, states saw two immediate benefits aside from neutering the criminal gangs, the first being that they could regulate the product.  Under Prohibition, unscrupulous bootleggers had manufactured moonshines and bathtub gins that could render tipplers blind or dead. Once alcohol was legal, you had a return to quality control, Peck said. The second immediate benefit? They could also tax the hooch.... In President Franklin Roosevelt's first two terms, federal taxes jumped from $1.6 billion in 1933 to $5.3 billion in 1940.

How that might translate to marijuana taxation today is debatable, and the ends of the gamut are nowhere near middle ground.  "Medical marijuana helped save the economy in California ... The counties north of San Francisco survived the recession through marijuana," said Aldrich, the marijuana historian.  He was referring to the Emerald Triangle, which is known for producing and exporting some of the country's highest-grade cannabis.

On the other side, you have President Barack Obama's drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, who emphatically denied that marijuana legalization would prove a boon to state coffers.  Taxes on alcohol, he told CNN in 2010, amount to $14.5 billion a year, where as the social costs are closer to $185 billion.

Ahead of the recent ballot initiatives in Colorado and Washington, the Colorado Center on Law & Policy estimated that legalization would yield $60 million in state and local revenue and savings by 2017, and perhaps double thereafter.  And Washington's Office of Financial Management estimated that a "fully functioning" marijuana industry could bring in nearly $2 billion in revenue over the next five years.

"Fully functioning." Therein lies the rub. Both the Colorado and Washington estimates came with caveats explaining the obvious: Any revenue projection is contingent on the federal government not enforcing the laws that still render possession of an ounce of marijuana illegal -- even in Colorado and Washington.

University of Virginia law professor Richard Bonnie, co-author of "Marijuana Conviction: A History of Marijuana Prohibition in the United States," said it's a tricky equation. "There is something attractive about saying you've got this underground market that's not going away, that you're missing a tax opportunity," he said. "The amount of tax revenue you're going to derive from it is going to depend on what your regulatory approach is going to be."

When alcohol Prohibition was lifted in 1933, regulation was left to the states. Oklahoma stayed dry until 1959, Mississippi until 1966.  Bonnie said he sees marijuana legalization advocates leaning toward a similar model. But, he warns, "there is a social cost to a regulatory regime that taxes and becomes dependent on the revenue."

Overtax it, and you create another dilemma: black markets and the smuggling of marijuana from state to state, a la post-Prohibition.  Canada and Sweden learned that lesson with cigarette taxes in the 1990s.

All of this is putting the roach before the joint, of course.  Marijuana, no matter what Colorado and Washington say, remains illegal at the federal level.  Experts are reluctant to forecast when that might change.  Aldrich predicts federal legalization by 2017, but he concedes that in 1969 he predicted the federal government would relent by 1979.

Some recent and older related posts:

December 1, 2012 at 08:27 PM | Permalink


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Has any expert has ever done a study of the contributors to the campaigns of politicians opposing legalization? Are they getting substantial contributions from businesses and individuals affiliated with the Mexican drug cartel or with the Taliban?

Prohibition represents a massive federal price support for these enemies of our nation. Any politician found to be funded by the Taliban should be arrested, tried, and executed for treason.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 2, 2012 12:18:12 PM

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Posted by: attorney-online.info | Dec 2, 2012 12:32:14 PM

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