Saturday, January 30, 2010

Queue the marijuana propaganda

Because of the ballot measure legalizing marijuana being voted on this November there will be a quite a few propaganda pieces, like this LA times article, written about marijuana legalization. They will all spout out the same lies and half truths while typically trying to make one of the following cases:

1. Marijuana should stay illegal because it is so much more dangerous than alcohol or cigarettes.

2. Making Marijuana legal will increase crime rates.

3. The money we would gain by making it legal would be insignificant.

The first argument is the most absurd. Hundreds of people a year die from alcohol overdose. None from marijuana. Withdrawal from alcohol has been known to kill, from marijuana it is unpleasant but not deadly. Both lead to similar risks from driving under the influence, but this isn't as important since the ballot measure doesn't change any of those laws.

The cancer risks are the most uncertain. Some people, like the LA times article I previously linked, claim that marijuana smoke has more carcinogens than tobacco implying it is more likely to cause cancer. This is quite a controversial claim. Many researchers have come to the conclusion cigarette smoke is more dangerous. Unlike with cigarettes there is no consensus that marijuana causes cancer at all. If it was as bad as cigarettes it would be relatively easy to show how bad the cancer risk is. As opposed to nicotine, THC is at worst a very mild carcinogen and probably not even one at all. So it is only the smoke that is dangerous. Even if marijuana smoke was worse than cigarette smoke though it probably doesn't matter. The total exposure is less leading to the total risk being much less; since a typical cigarette smoker might smoke a pack a day, while few pot-heads ever smoke nearly as much. At worse the risk is similar to cigarettes, and at best the risk is far less. This is clearly no excuse for prohibition.

Another of the more aggravating arguments I hear is that marijuana is stronger now than it was in the past. First of all, it is probably not true; but even if it is, so what? If anything that makes it safer since it is the smoke that is dangerous and less smoke is required for the same high. That should lower the cancer risk. Since overdose is not an issue there really isn't the sort of danger that say taking shots of everclear represents. And even if it was an issue, just legalize the lower THC strains. After all we first ended prohibition for low alcohol beer, than for most alcohol a bit later.

The crime rate argument one is the favorite argument of many people. It just sounds plausible. However there are a lot of good reasons to why this isn't the scary proposition people make it out to be.

Marijuana has been pseudo-legal in California for many years now. The medical marijuana bill passed in 1996. Since then, anyone with a doctor's permission can legally buy marijuana. Getting a doctor to approve you does not appear to be very difficult either. I know many perfectly healthy people with medical marijuana, so clearly there is a great deal of legal recreational use out there. So we have first hand experience with liberalization of drug laws. If making it a lot easier to smoke was going to increase crime rates, than we have over a decade of data to look at to find out how bad it has been. Guess what? Crime rates have been consistently dropping since the bill was passed(although they started to fall before the bill, so I am not saying that the liberalization caused the decline, although a good case for that could be made). If there is an increase in the crime rate we therefore know that it is a tiny one incapable of stopping a long-term decrease in the crime rate.

There are many reasons that crime rates have not increased, one of the biggest is that making something illegal gives people reason to fight over it. Drug dealers compete with guns. Liquor stores compete with price cuts, wide selection, and advertising. Therefore turning drug dealers into legitimate businessmen is one of the best things we can do to reduce crime rates. They will no longer be shooting up our neighborhoods.

Also thousands of police officers are wasting their lives arresting these drug users and dealers. If this proposition passes they will be free to spend their time chasing after violent criminals. This will almost certainly bring down crime rates.

As for the money the state will save if this bill passes, it comes from many sources:

1. Taxes on marijuana.
2. Reduced criminal justice system costs because we are arresting less people.
3. Taxes payed by citizens who would be in jail, but are now free to work.

When arguing the income is too small to matter, people typically focus only on the first source of income. But the net swing will be far more than just that. It is safe to say that the state will make billions off of the ballot measure. That won't single-handedly save the state budget, but the 1.34 billion dollars in tax money the bill is expected to make is enough money to entirely fund six Fresno State sized colleges. That would do a lot more good for our economy than locking up nonviolent criminals ever could.

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