Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Are economic times so tough that it's finally time to free the weed and tax it?
That's the question posed by this article from the United States, which makes a series of excellent points in relation to both President-elect Obama's former dope proclivity and the economic stimulus that legalising cannabis could potentially provide.
It's a fascinating idea for a number of reasons. Clearly prohibition has not prevented people from taking drugs identified under legislation as illegal. People who want to get wasted will get wasted whether it's against the law or not.
But it's not my intention to re-hash old arguments about whether cannabis is a 'gateway drug' (it isn't - that would be tobacco) or whether the current prohibition policy criminalises otherwise law-abiding people (obviously it does) or even whether cannabis is more or less dangerous to health and society than currently legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco (depends on how you measure the danger.)
Instead, I'd like to explore what might happen if we capitulated to Ming the Merciless and this campaign by legalising cannabis.
In estimating the transposition of illegal commodity into legal taxable product, a certain element of guesswork is inevitable. But Mr Reinertson guesstimates that the USA would reap $2.4 billion to $6.2 billion annually in regulated marijuana tax revenue.
On a scaled population level, that would translate into $32 to $82 million, or €25 million to €65 million. So, not so much really. Hardly worth the reefer madness that legalisation would lead to, really, is it?
Well, then again, that's quite a lot of cervical cancer vaccines or teaching salaries. Every penny counts in a recession, y'know. And we're talking tens of millions in revenue here.
And then there are the hidden revenues, like savings on imprisoning people simply for growing and selling a particular plant, such as these people who were arrested recently. After all, it costs us around €100,000 a year to keep each prisoner incarcerated.
How many people are behind bars currently solely for growing, smoking, possessing or selling weed? If all of those people were free, how much would we save? Now how many teaching salaries or hospital beds are we talking about?
And there are the social benefits too. More weed smokers may well mean an eventual upturn in lung cancer and possibly (the causative effect is disputed by many medics) a small upturn in schizophrenia.
But it would definitely mean fewer pissed-up loons causing fights and criminal damage on our city streets every night. It would likely mean less suicide too, as the euphoriant effects of cannabis are unlikely to lead to suicidal ideation as much as the depressive qualities of alcohol, which is found in the bloodstreams of over 70% of suicide victims.
Can we put a price on that?
Wikipedia (I cite with the usual caveats) has a useful table of the legality of cannabis by country here.
As can be seen, since there are almost no countries where cannabis is legal and very few where it is even decriminalised, anti-cannabis campaigners would no doubt latch onto this as a reason for maintaining the status quo.
They would scaremonger that any country that took the move to legalise first would be swamped by 'drug tourists.' I would cast that in a different light. Any country brave enough to take this step first would benefit from a significant upswing in tourism revenue. Again, what price on that?
In any case, as the Wikipedia table indicates, in large tracts of Western Europe cannabis is de facto decriminalised already, and we haven't yet seen the end of European civilisation as we know it.
We in Ireland already have laws dealing with driving or operating machinery while intoxicated. We already have an indoor smoking ban in place. We have the infrastructure and legislative framework in existence to legalise, tax, monitor and administrate a cannabis market.
Which mainstream party will be the first to back the legalisation of cannabis?
And will they wait until Obama undoes the American-led global prohibition (which only ever benefited big tobacco and vintners anyway) or will they be brave and take the lead in Europe (which is moving that way anyway) and reap innumerable social benefits, a tourism boost and substantial revenue increases as a result?