(MintPress) — Supporters of marijuana legislation reform took to the streets in honor of the nation’s unofficial 420 marijuana holiday, and economists are claiming demonstrators might be onto something, citing government savings of more than $13 billion a year if cannabis were to be legalized and regulated.
In the days leading to 420, more than 300 prominent economists signed a petition supporting the full legalization of marijuana. The report breaks down cost savings to the government in terms of enforcement measures and tax revenue, claiming close to $8 billion a year in savings through the elimination of low-level marijuana crimes enforcement. Regulating marijuana and subjecting it to a “sin” tax, similar to alcohol and tobacco, would bring in another $6 billion, economists say.
The report was authored by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron, long known as an activist for legalization and regulation. His work is supported by three Nobel Laureates and economists from leading universities throughout the nation who are rallying for legalization for the sake of the economy, now faced with a growing federal deficit.
Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation legalizing medicinal marijuana. California, known for its marijuana-friendly state laws, gained nationwide attention in 2010 when it attempted to take legalization to the next level. The Proposition 19 ballot initiative sought the legalization of marijuana for those over 21 years old, allowing possession of less than one ounce.
Supporters claimed the bill would generate revenue through regulation and help curb a growing drug violence problem within Mexico, fueled by cartels selling marijuana to California’s black market. To the dismay of supporters, the initiative failed with 54 percent opposition, according to the LA Times.
Speculation as to why the California measure fell short vary, but the referendum was introduced to voters one month after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill into law that decriminalized marijuana with a $100 fee and traffic-like ticket for those in possession of less than one ounce.
Colorado and Washington voters will face a similar ballot measure in November when the two medicinal marijuana friendly states allow voters a say on a measure to legalize marijuana among adults.
Washington’s initiative, which gained the support of 278,000 residents who signed the petition to get it on the ballot, would not only allow marijuana possession for 21 year olds, but would also allow the state to collect taxes on transactions. Approval of the referendum is supported by Seattle City Attorney Peter Holmes.
Colorado is a leader in the nation’s medicinal marijuana industry. Renowned for its impressive state regulation model, its marijuana measures are supported on both sides of the political aisle. Rep. Tom Massey, a Republican, has been the sponsor of key medical marijuana regulation. In an interview with the Associated Press, Massey acknowledged that medical marijuana sales in Colorado aren’t going anywhere.
“It’s something that’s here to stay, and we better make sure it’s properly regulated,” he said.
Monitored by the Colorado Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division, regulations in Colorado are looked at as models for other states. Employees undergo thorough background checks, grow methods are in line with strict standards and guidelines are in place for labeling and disposing of excess marijuana. But despite its state-run success, the federal government has cracked down.
U.S. Attorney John Walsh issued a letter in January to 23 medicinal marijuana dispensaries, located 1,000 feet from schools, saying that the federal government would shut down facilities if action was not taken. One month later, 22 of those facilities were shut down — one, which was located near an empty school building, remained open, according to the Denver Post.
Federal government and states at odds over marijuana laws
States’ legalization of medicinal marijuana is at odds with the federal government, which classifies cannabis under all circumstances as an illegal narcotic. A majority of states have been subject to federal raids on ‘grow operations,’ creating a rift between state sovereignty and federal power.
The February Colorado crackdown highlights the relationships medicinal marijuana states face. While Federal laws oppose legal marijuana growing and dispersing of any kind, not all growing facilities or governments are subject to shutdowns, raids and penalties. The line for federal action is hazy, as U.S. Attorneys are given the authority to deem cases in which the federal government may enforce its authority.
In a letter to a Colorado District Attorney following disputes over Colorado’s dispensaries located near schools, Walsh describes the process the Federal government takes in regard to individual state marijuana laws, acknowledging that taking out all marijuana operations in legal states would be a burden for federal law enforcement.
“In the now well-known Ogden and Cole memos, the Department leaves enforcement discretion with U.S. Attorney’s Offices around the country, counsels that prosecution of persons using marijuana for medical purposes and their immediate caregivers is not ordinarily the best use of federal law enforcement resources, and then re-emphasizes that investigation and prosecution of marijuana trafficking remains a priority of the Department, particularly where federal interests require it,” he wrote.
In an attempt to eliminate federal authority over medicinal marijuana states, Reps. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., co-sponsored the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011 that would have removed marijuana from the list of federally controlled substances. The legislation was not one of legalization, but removing marijuana from the federal list would allow states to make decisions without consequences at the federal level.
With mounting opposition, the bill failed to make it out of committee. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith was quick to condemn the prohibition act, claiming marijuana as a dangerous gateway drug that, if legalized, would only fuel hard drug wars near the Mexican border, according to the Associated Press.
Politics in legalization
The proposal by Paul and Frank in 2011 wasn’t all too far off from claims made by President Barack Obama on the campaign trail that he would cut back on federal interference with state medicinal marijuana operations.
Since taking office, raids on medicinal marijuana growing facilities have actually increased, according to Americans for Safe Access. In April, a letter was sent to the federal government on behalf of the 16 states — and Washington D.C. — that allow the use of medicinal marijuana. The letter requests the federal government limit its interference with sovereign states and asks Obama to live up to his campaign promise.
Without directly responding to the states, Obama has sent the clear message during his recent visit to the Summit of the Americas that his current no-tolerance stance on legalization and decriminalization at the federal level isn’t going to change.
Latin American leaders were urging the president to consider legalization or decriminalization as an option to America’s current war on drugs, claiming removing America’s black market would cut back on the business of South America’s dangerous drug cartels.
In 2010, a RAND Corporation study found that Marijuana makes up 15 to 26 percent of drug-related exports from Mexican drug cartels to the U.S. The exploratory analysis was conducted prior to California’s Proposition 19 ballot initiative and determined that, of all the marijuana imported through Mexico, 14 percent was sold in California.
Beau Kilmer, the lead author of the study, concluded the legalization of marijuana in California would not have a significant impact on the drug cartels in Mexico. However, assuming all Mexican marijuana exports cease, drug cartels could stand to lose up to 26 percent of their income.
Regardless of studies focusing on the impact on South America’s drug war and American economics, drug policies at the federal level won’t change anytime soon. While Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has recently dodged issues relating to legalization, in the past he has expressed opposition to legalization of medicinal marijuana.