The drug policies of the United States are horrifically backwards. They promote the incarceration of people guilty of soft drug possession, people who likely pose no threat to themselves or others. They cost countless billions of dollars each year as money is siphoned into enforcement, prisons, and drug “education.” They are even patently hypocritical, protecting the vices of the old and mainstream, namely alcohol and tobacco, while discriminating against an objectively more benign intoxicant favored by the young and hip, marijuana. While drug policy as a whole is clearly irrational, the ban on marijuana is by far the most arresting and nonsensical element of America’s drug laws. It is painfully obvious that pot remains illegal only because of misinformation, prejudice, and blind traditionalism. Regrettably, all three are widespread.
Despite the prevalent and entrenched anti-pot mentality, one state is bucking the trend: California. Public opinion in the Golden State is coalescing behind efforts to reform marijuana laws. A ballot initiative, Proposition 19, was put forward this year to legalize cannabis for personal consumption by persons over the age of 21. The initiative has been hotly contested, but it currently looks like it will pass by a slim margin. Even if 19 does not pass, it now seems inevitable that legalization will occur in the near future. Support for legalization has consistently polled better over time ever since the 1970s, when a different Proposition 19, also aimed at legalization, was voted down. Furthermore, California is truly the perfect place for marijuana reform: not only does the state have a tradition of being forward-thinking, but it also has an enormous “special interest” population: stoners. When legalization finally happens, expect it to be celebrated by the pro-pot crusaders as the first step toward reshaping America’s drug laws to finally conform with common sense and reason. The advocates will probably be right—on balance, it’s a good thing that pot will finally be legal in California. When legalization finally occurs and the smoke clears, though, pot’s legality is likely to have some surprising unintended consequences. It may be worth considering that there will be a lot to miss about our stupid drug laws.
First of all, the government will control pot once it is legalized. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; pro-marijuana campaigners highlight the positive impact the proposition would have on California’s finances, especially during the current state budget crisis. The State Board of Equalization has estimated that Prop 19 could raise 1.4 billion dollars in tax revenue and cut millions of dollars in enforcement costs. Although almost every major political figure holding elected office in California has come out against 19, the bill is so deeply in the state’s financial interest it is somewhat difficult to see their opposition as anything more than political posturing. They can hedge their bets by opposing 19 before it passes and, if the public clears it, bandwagon their way to a balanced budget, marijuana money in hand. California clearly needs the cash, but its an open question whether or not the grossly irresponsible state government can be trusted with potheads’ hard-earned dollars. If marijuana goes the way of tobacco, smokers could be looking at a price increase on pot post-legalization. The state is already planning leveling a $50 tax on each ounce of weed sold—how long until the governor’s next high-speed rail pipe-dream is financed by slapping a few extra dollars of taxation on the California workingman’s next bag of green? It seems ill-advised to trust a state government as mismanaged as California’s with something as important as marijuana.
While the government takes pot revenue to the bank, the benefits of full legalization for your everyday Californian are going to be few and far between. After all, if one is inclined to smoke, cannabis is already legally available to all Californians over 18 with $100 to spare and a persistent medical condition, courtesy of the state’s medical marijuana program. Not only do an extraordinary number of people qualify for a medical card, as a wide variety of conditions are approved for treatment, but law enforcement is difficult when dealing with private medical records, so acquiring a card without good cause is extremely easy. The marijuana clubs sell the best cannabis in the world at competitive prices and you know it is grown by your friends, not a drug cartel or a monopolistic corporation. Even the non-dispensary pot grown in California is high-quality and safe—it is often produced without the pesticides and fertilizers packed into conventionally grown tobacco or produce and is frequently raised hydroponically or outdoors in forested regions. These are bywords for quality when used to hawk “medicinal herbs” at Whole Foods or other alternative food stores across the country, but are pure necessity when it comes to growing marijuana. Indoor grow rooms or outdoor patches are the only places relatively safe from law enforcement. Keeping weed illegal, it seems, creates a financial incentive to grow it in small batches on private plots, with distribution targeted on the local area. This lowers the environmental impact of growing weed and supports local business, but is unlikely to continue once pot growing leaves the black market. California’s green underground is thriving without legalization and the financial incentives of illegality keep weed locavore- and foodie-friendly.
Once weed joins the legal economy, smaller growers may very well go the way of the American Family farm. Big Agra will inevitably start producing marijuana once it becomes legally and socially acceptable. This should inspire terror. Look at modern American agriculture: pesticides are dumped on crops, genetic modification toys with DNA recklessly, and the produce at the local Safeway often is more dried out than bud being sold on the streets of Berkeley. There is a real community of artisans at risk if marijuana is legalized. Michael Pollan, prominent author and expert on botany, has called the California marijuana growers that crossed the indica and sativa strains of cannabis and took the plant indoors to protect it from DEA spraying the greatest gardeners of the past century. These craftsmen will have a hard time competing with Monsanto and Pfizer—letting big players into the game could compromise quality and safety. Big Tobacco might get in on the game as well. How long will it be before Marlboro produces its first boxes of pre-rolled joints and smoking cannabis loses all vestiges of subversiveness, only to become another dubiously healthy habit. Besides, if cannabis isn’t carcinogenic now, wait until Big Tobacco fools around with it. Pot with a warning label could be scary and it definitely would be _lame_.
Perhaps the only clear benefit to a cannabis smoker from legalization is that there will be no legal penalties for smoking pot in private if you are over 21. This is an extremely small payoff considering the other potential detriments. Anyways, the specter of being caught with marijuana by law enforcement is also more stoner paranoia than a legitimate concern. Getting caught smoking marijuana in your own home is comically improbable. Even if a less-than-cautious smoker is caught, weed is now decriminalized in California; offenses involving possession for personal use are treated like traffic tickets. Speeding is against the law, but almost everyone pushes it once and a while. Smoking cannabis is about the same legal risk, without the potential for a cataclysmic car crash. Not to mention that everyone under 21 who enjoys a toke or two has good reason to oppose the bill. You would be hard-pressed to find a pot dealer that cards his or her clientele, making pot frequently more accessible than alcohol to the underage crowd. This will end with legalization and might actually represent a public health problem: stoned teenagers eating Doritos and watching TV are probably less of a risk to themselves and others than drunk kids that barely know how to drive. The safety of California’s children must be taken into account.
Legalization could destroy the social dynamic of cannabis as well. If someone is not inclined to smoke, the plant consumption of other Californians is rarely thrust in his or her face. The subject still remains somewhat taboo and that is, perhaps, for the best. Those who are in on the secret enjoy the camaraderie of engaging in something that is not wholly looked down upon and not yet wholly permitted. Those who chose not to indulge can go on without having to deal with someone else’s pungent habit.
The very fact that our country has stupid drug laws is also in some ways important. The younger generation is, for the most part, acutely aware of how ludicrous they are. From this they can derive that every law the government passes is not always just and everything a police officer tells you is not always true. It encourages students to do their own research and question what the are taught, the very virtues education tries to instill. How will young people learn that old people are full of it without trying marijuana and discovering that DARE was a bit over-the-top? What will high schoolers hide from their parents? What will happen to sales of Febreeze and Visene if getting high on the down low is no longer necessary? Will there be a pot dealer unemployment crisis? Won’t smoke shops seem crass if they call their “water pipes” bongs? Will people get way too into weed if blazing is no longer “sketchy”? And this—_what if smoking weed just isn’t fun anymore?_