Thomas D. Elias: Marijuana a solution to state budget?
Another state budget writing season is over, and another deficit budget adopted (even though Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger won’t admit it), with the usual lip service to fixing the so-called “structural deficit,” but nothing serious done in that direction.
Meanwhile, from deep in the Emerald Triangle of Northern California, long reputed to be the national capital of in-ground marijuana growing, comes a simple idea that could both solve the budget deficit and end the greatest American hypocrisy since Prohibition. Too bad it has virtually no chance of passage in this decade or, very likely, the next one either.
You remember Prohibition, don’t you? The era when hard liquor was banned by federal Constitutional amendment but still remained available to pretty much anyone who wanted it. The era when rum-runners got rich and moonshine whiskey distilled in secret because a cottage industry in many a hilly rural area.
If that sounds a little familiar, substitute pot for booze. It is also readily available today for almost anyone who wants it. Drug cartels and the occasional small private grower get rich from the illicit trade. Pot gardens abound in virtually every wild, woodsy and hilly area of California (not to mention Oregon, Arkansas, Tennessee and many other states). Homes in middle class suburbs like Diamond Bar and Pomona are turned into greenhouses by hydroponic marijuana growers who are sometimes caught when their electric bills become astronomical and attract attention.
How much pot is grown in California? The take from the annual Campaign Against Marijuana Production, a joint campaign of state, federal and local authorities, now approaches $7 billion in street value, but law enforcement spokesmen generally estimate they confiscate no more than one-tenth of the crop.
That estimate recently spurred the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors to implore its local congressman, Democrat Mike Thompson, to press forward efforts to get marijuana legalized. As medical pot users in California have frequently discovered since passage of Proposition 215 in 1996 attempted to legalize medicinal use with a doctor’s recommendation, any significant legalization will have to come from the federal level. State laws are simply too easy for federal agents to overrule.
The Mendocino County letter contains the seeds of a budget solution. It was based on one local official’s estimate that marijuana contributes about $5 billion annually to the county’s overall economy. The estimate is based on the approximate $500 million worth of pot rousted by authorities from Mendocino gardens.
The supervisors, of course, are concerned about their always-strapped county budget and figure that if pot were legalized, the county might get about $50 million a year in fresh income.
That figure could be very low. For sure, statewide, legalizing pot would produce much, much more for governments at all levels.
Do the math: If $7 billion is confiscated, then production in the state is worth about $70 billion, all now completely untaxed. Legalize the weed and you get an immediate $5.77 billion in sales taxes. Legalize it, and you then can track who’s getting the money and make sure they pay income taxes, which ought to produce at least
another $7 billion or so for state and local coffers.
That infusion would rise as the years go by, due to inflation. Taxes produced would be more than what’s needed to end the often vilified structural budget deficit.
Add an excise tax and you get even more. The federal government wouldn’t get enough from California alone to pay for the war in Iraq, but its national take after legalization might be as much as $60 billion a year.
This money now all goes into the hands of criminals and their cartels. Because their product is illegal contraband, these growers feel they must guard it. So they booby trap gardens, employ armed men to patrol around the clock and work to kill off any competition or turf poachers.
Legalize marijuana and much of that criminal activity would end because it would be unnecessary. The quality of pot, currently extremely variable and unpredictable, could also be policed.
There would no longer be any reason for anyone to fake an illness in order to get a medipot doctor’s recommendation, so federal raids on dispensaries would end.
And law enforcement could concentrate more on other drugs like methamphetmines, cocaine and heroin.
Sure, there is a potential downside: Pot makes users lethargic and unmotivated. It can also be a step toward use of harder drugs. Much the same can be said for alcohol, and was said about it before Prohibition ended. But Prohibition ended because it was flouted to the point of absurdity.
The same is true for anti-marijuana laws today. Which makes it a shame that for now, the Mendocino County idea has absolutely no chance of even coming to a vote in Congress.
Thomas D. Elias is a syndicated columnist who writes about California issues. Contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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