Prop 19 About Marijuana Industry, Not Use

by Editorial Board on October 11, 2010

Government exists to protect life, liberty, and property. In its war on marijuana, it is utterly failing, not in spite of its efforts but because of them. Government policies intended to reduce the harm that drug users potentially inflict on society have given rise to violent drug cartels that actually inflict harm on society and countless innocent victims. On this point, libertarians need no further convincing. Conservatives and moderates, however, do see a role for government in policing individual behavior that’s harmful to society, such as drug use. These people in their daily lives are far more likely to witness the harm marijuana causes to people who willingly smoke it, rather than the violence inflicted on innocents by drug gangs. However, the latter harm is far worse, and it’s this that Proposition 19 addresses.

In this way, Prop 19 is not so much about individual marijuana use. While it does legalize adult possession of an ounce or less of marijuana, current California laws punish this with a slim $100 fine, akin to a parking ticket. Marijuana use will almost certainly increase if it’s legalized, but it’s hard to imagine the current penalty deterring too many people from consuming it.

The far more important effect of Prop 19 will be on the marijuana industry. Our current marijuana laws help violent drug cartels maintain artificially high drug prices by eliminating competition in their industry through raids and prosecutions. Whenever one drug distributor is shut down, the others quickly fill the void and grow even richer. Prop 19 would deal a severe (although not fatal) blow to drug cartels. Without their government-granted monopoly status, they would not be able to compete effectively in a semi-legal marijuana industry. Their ability to recruit new members and inflict violence would be greatly diminished. Unfortunately, federal prohibition would still prevent the formation of marijuana brands, financing, and a stable regulatory environment that would be necessary to eliminate marijuana sales as a funding source for unsavory enterprises. That doesn’t mean we should give up on state legalization; it just means our job won’t be finished if Prop 19 passes.

While marijuana use will likely increase if legalized, the story here is not all bad. Marijuana prohibition currently makes more harmful drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, relatively more attractive because they are more potent and less smelly and thus much easier to transport and consume undetected. We can expect many current drug users to choose cheaper, legal marijuana over other, harder drugs. And, just as prohibition-era moonshine gave way to light beer and cigars gave way to smokeless e-cigarettes, there is much reason to believe that after legalization, consumers will prefer less potent marijuana and healthier methods of ingestion (an argument advanced by Milton Friedman).

This editorial board found budgetary arguments for legalization to be unconvincing. California has a spending problem, not a revenue problem, and taxing marijuana would only be a short-term fix. Also, punitively high sin taxes would be little better than prohibition since they would present a large opportunity for tax-evading gangs. Law enforcement personnel would likely be shifted to other drug wars instead of being permanently cut because of their strong unions. And while the prison population would decrease, that alone is a weak economic argument.

Opponents say that Proposition 19 will create legal uncertainty in two ways. First, it will create a patchwork of different regulations, since it lets local governments decide whether to allow the sale of marijuana in their jurisdiction (possession of up to an ounce would be legal everywhere in the state). The political establishment, which thrives on centralization, feigns concern for the “regulatory burden” this will place on localities and growers. To the people of California, however, this is just federalism and local choice, both undeniably good things. The vast majority of California cities can continue to forbid civic blights like marijuana coffee shops and retailers and thus preserve the status quo, but those cities that did permit it would suffice to significantly reduce marijuana’s contribution to drug gangs, which would benefit us all.

Opponents also claim that Prop 19 will prevent employers from disciplining or firing employees who use marijuana, thereby jeopardizing public safety and federal contracts. This interpretation relies on a strained reading of a single sentence in the proposition and is contradicted by clear language elsewhere. Indeed, the California Legislative Analyst’s Office’s interpretation is that “employers would retain existing rights to address consumption of marijuana that impairs an employee’s job performance.” The clear intent is that employers will treat marijuana and alcohol use by employees in the same way. In the end, courts will interpret the text of the proposition within our time-tested legal doctrine, just as they do every other law and proposition. It’s worth noting that in 1996, opponents of Proposition 215 (which legalized medical marijuana) trotted out the same kind of scare tactics, saying that it was a “set of legal loopholes designed to protect drug dealers.” Hindsight shows these fears were blown way out of proportion.

Many Californians support marijuana legalization in principle but think that Prop 19 isn’t the way to achieve it. They’ve no doubt been influenced by the vast majority of California newspaper editorial boards and politicians who say just this. Some point to the unclear language addressed above. Some want more control (and tax authority) vested in Sacramento rather than localities. Some want this handled by the legislature, not by ballot proposition. Though that would be ideal, it is unlikely to happen. If we wait for the political establishment to craft the perfect marijuana legalization bill, we’ll be waiting forever.

As both a moral and tangible matter, the harm inflicted on innocent victims by drug gangs is far worse than the harm that drug users willingly inflict on themselves and the abstract harm that marijuana causes to society. The logical next step after this realization is to let legitimate businesses sprout up to supply Californians’ demand for marijuana, instead of continuing our policy of enforcing violent drug gangs’ monopolies on the marijuana market.

Unsigned editorials represent the views of The Stanford Review’s Editorial Board and do not necessarily reflect opinions of The Stanford Review or its staff. The Editorial Board consists of the opinion editors and the editor-in-chief. To submit a letter to the editor or guest op-ed, please e-mail our opinion editors, Autumn Carter at aacarter@stanford.edu and Quinn Slack at sqs@stanford.edu.

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