A Decade of Decriminalization

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Ordinary Times. Relapsed Lawyer, admitted to practice law (under his real name) in California and Oregon. On Twitter, to his frequent regret, at @burtlikko. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

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38 Responses

  1. I’ve never really bought the economics-based argument for decriminalization/legalization. Yes, there will be a little extra tax revenue and yes, some good can be done with it, but I don’t think that should be the motivating factor for government to pass new legislation. This is along much the same lines as state governments that vote to allow casinos or state lottories and argue for them based on future tax revenue. This strikes me as exploiting vice in the name of good works which is a bit of a bait and switch when you think about the lives ruined by gambling addictions.

    I’m in favor od decriminalization/legalization of marijuana because it strikes me as painfully obvious that it’s much safer than alcohol and there’s no legitimate reason to not legalize it. Any future tax benefit doesn’t factor into my decision-making at all.Report

    • RTod in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

      I second this. The actual arguments for keeping marijuana illegal – assuming that someone is not also advocating alcohol prohibition – are laughable. (My favorite is the “gateway” argument, saying that those that did hard drugs did marijuana first. What, they never had a beer prior?) Marijuana’s use for helping people with chemotherapy has made these laws even more absurd.Report

    • Anderson in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

      Absolutely. In conversation the other day, a friend of mine was sincerely under the impression that we could cure our federal deficit woes by legalizing marijuana . Which, of course, ignores 1.) the size of our deficit vs. the size of pot revenue (let’s call it $1 trillion vs maybe? $1o billion), not too mention the size of our whole economy vs the size of the marijuana industry 2.) The cost of regulating this new product on the market (a new subdivision of the FDA?), though this would certainly be less expensive than the current cost of enforcing prohibition. 3.)The myriad and costly legal battles that would have to take place over state vs federal law, applying sentences retroactively, etc 4.) The fact that most of this revenue would be sales tax, which goes to states and localities, not the IRA, so no breaking a dent in the federal deficit there…..

      But I think most rational people accept that the broad economic argument for legalization is minuscule. The reasons you mentioned (obviously less harmful than alcohol, no good reason not to) are much better, plus the larger argument that drug use should be treated as a health concern, not a criminal justice one. Throw in some other points about cartel violence and wasting valuable police time for good measure. Overall, I want pot to be legal just as much as the next guy, but, with the economic arguments, let’s not make it something it’s not.Report

  2. greginak says:

    Portugal’s example is useful to show that a country will not dissolve into a Mad Max style dystopia is pot or some other drugs are legalized. To many of the pro-legalization folks here in AK and nationally fall into offering the magic rainbow unicorn panacea fairy which sadly, and unfortunately, discredits them.Report

  3. Plinko says:

    I’d think the fiscal benefits, which ought to be secondary to Doing the Right Thing anyway, would mainly accrue on more local levels with reduced spending on policing and incarceration, not from the creation of any tax revenue streams nationally.

    Of course, I’d also posit that decriminalizing and legalizing are wildly different in terms of government revenue. If you merely decriminalize, the activity remains at least grey market, if not mainly in black markets, and therefore not brought fully into the fully-taxed economy. If you legalize, you create the framework for actually generating revenue from the regulatory regime created.Report

    • My understanding is that there is not a single country in the world that has legalized marijuana.Report

      • greginak in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

        The NetherlandsReport

        • Simon K in reply to greginak says:

          Technically not. The law isn’t enforced for cafes and small quantities, but its still illegal. They do bust anyone dealing large quantities. My understanding is that international treaties make it hard for a small country like the Netherlands to legalize pot by themselves. Other EU countries already complain about “leakage” since there are no border controls in the EU.Report

    • Pat Cahalan in reply to Plinko says:

      I’m pretty sure that legalizing pot is not going to result in a massive influx of revenue any way you slice it.

      Maybe if you legalize stuff that’s more difficult or dangerous to produce. Pot is a weed, after all. Just about any moron can grow it. It takes less effort to get usable pot on your own plot than it does to make a couple 12-packs of beer.

      Not to mention the fact that there is a long standing culture of growing your own weed for panache value among potheads.Report

      • I believe Michael Pollan talked once about how if we could harness the horticulture know-how of hi-tech pot growers we could probably cure cancer in five years. In the U.S. California is doing some amazing things with the plant in terms of increasing its intensity, characteristics, etc.Report

      • Herb in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

        Just because you can grow it yourself doesn’t mean you wouldn’t rather buy it.

        Most growers grow it so they can sell it anyway. Legalizing it takes that transaction out of the dark and into the light.Report

        • Pat Cahalan in reply to Herb says:

          > Just because you can grow it yourself doesn’t
          > mean you wouldn’t rather buy it.


          But already cigarette taxes are so high that most smokers I know either hit the Reservation to buy smokes or roll their own, regularly. Mebbe not universally, but regularly.

          You can grow a pot plant for the price of a few gallons of water and some cheap fertilizer. If pot is $10 for a pack of doobies, you might shell out the $10. If pot is $50 for a pack of doobies and there is no criminal penalty for growing it yourself, you’re probably growing it yourself.

          If 1/2 of the $10 is taxes, that means a pack of doobies has to cost $3.50 to get to market for the supply chain to get their profit margins at each step of the game. That’s certainly *doable*.

          The whole calculus is skewed because you can decriminalize pot but if you still have mandatory drug testing for 90% of the jobs in the country, you still have a pretty big economic disincentive for drug use.Report

          • The question is what kind of product do you get growing it yourself in a five-gallon bucket? I would liken it to, “Yeah, I can cook myself dinner but that Italian restaurant down the street does it waaaaay better.”

            There’s also the stigma that would come with it in the first decade. Neighbors will frown, friends will make remarks. Legal pot growing would be a multi-billion dollar industry, no doubt. I STILL don’t think that’s the rationale for legalizing it though. It was banned on the premise of morality and it must be legalized in the same way.Report

            • Maybe I read too much “Make”. It’s obvious I’m not the Average Dude.Report

            • Simon K in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

              Most DIY pot is grown hydroponically, in-doors. Its not very hard to set up a simple setup in a closet or basement where no-one will notice. Regular flourescent lights, some mylar and an aquarium pump give decent results. I’m told. I really don’t do it myself, but I do a lot of seed-starting and container gardening. The pot guys know what they’re doing. I suspect C. Sativa and C. Indica have some of the best understood scientific agriculture in the world dedicated to them, ironically because they need to be grown in secret.Report

              • Burt Likko in reply to Simon K says:

                Well, there’s different levels of discretion. If you have enough gro-lamps that your roof won’t hold snow in the winter that might be a tip-off to observant neighbors that something’s up. The cops don’t need a search warrant to look at your roof from the street.Report

              • Simon K in reply to Burt Likko says:

                There is that. I was thinking more about growing a couple of plants. Industrial operations are a whole different matter. You need industrial air-con, two sets of power-hungry lights (forget the flourescents) and vast quantities of fertilizer and growing medium. Unless you *really* like winter tomatos, there aren’t any good explanations for that stuff.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Simon K says:

                Unless you *really* like winter tomatos,

                All of the, ahem, “gardening superstore” commercials here in town won’t shut up about growing your own tomatoes.


              • Simon K in reply to Jaybird says:

                On a similar note, my wife and I were driving through a small town Marin county the other weekend that had four hyroponics stores up next to the freeway. It took us a minute to say “well, this is where they grow all the pot then”, more or less in unison. Hydroponics is *really* expensive and there aren’t many things that can justify it. Wasabi, maybe – the real stuff not the mustard and green food coloring. Not much else. Certainly not tomatoes – its probably cheaper to fly them from South America than to try to grow then with hydro.Report

              • Simon K in reply to Jaybird says:

                PS. You should still grow your own tomatoes. Store bought tomatoes taste like water and have the texture of wet spackle. Do it in the summer, though, so you don’t get visits from the FBI wondering why you have containers of nutrient solution in your trash.Report

            • dexter in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

              If you want really strong pot, I would not recommend getting your seeds from a plant growing in a ditch in Kansas.
              When I left Alaska in 79 pot had some weird law that said it was illegal to have it, but the cops could not bust you for a small amount. Lots of people grew it. It was not an extremely rare sight to be driving down a Fairbanks surburban street and see a nine foot plant in somebodies front yard. The hard part there was keeping it from freezing long enough for it to bud out.Report

          • Herb in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

            I don’t know anyone who rolls their own cigarettes, but I do know a lot of people who buy them. Mostly because it’s more convenient.

            Same reason why we’re not sewing our own clothes (even though we can) or growing our own food (even though we can).Report

            • Simon K in reply to Herb says:

              Except people do grow their own food and make their own clothes. Its just that we don’t have to do it all the time any more.Report

  4. North says:

    I don’t think a policy of no longer hitting oneself in the head with a hammer could be said to be a failure just because it did not result in the doubling of one’s IQ.Report

  5. Jaybird says:

    The main thing that I’d want would be predictions to be written down and numbers verified.

    “If we spend 10% more on fighting the drug war, then meth use will go down, heroin use will go down, and pot use will go down. The prices of these drugs will go up because we’ll finally have the resources we need to fight them and the supply will dwindle in response and cause the price to skyrocket and that will cause use to go down even more.”

    And 10 years later, after increasing the drug war budget by 10%, we could look at meth use, heroin use, and pot use. We can look at prices.

    These things are measurable.

    Maybe we could compare 1972 to 1982 to 1992 to 2002 to 2012 and see if anything that the drug warriors have promised us has come to pass.

    Anything at all.Report

  6. Lyle says:

    My compromise let everywhere in the US turn pot possession into a Class C (no jail time) misdemenor. Set the fine by the weight so it sort of walks like a tax, but the cops keep it. It would save most of the money, as the cases could go to the JP or municipal court, (less formal), and no cost for prisons (of course the prison unions would not like it). After this consider the same solution for simple possession of other drugs. But do rigidly enforce the driving under the influence laws.Report

  7. James K says:

    How much was Portugal spending on drug law enforcement before decriminalisation? Because that’s what’s going to determine how much better things will get when you start legalising drugs.

    While marijuana and harder drugs are illegal everywhere these days, the effort that goes into enforcement varies widely. In New Zealand you generally won’t get arrested for simple possession of marijuana because the police don’t consider it worth their time. By contrast, I understand the US government spends a ridiculous amount of money on drug enforcement.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to James K says:

      How much was Portugal spending on drug law enforcement before decriminalisation? Because that’s what’s going to determine how much better things will get when you start legalising drugs.

      I agree that it’s the reduced enforcement costs, not revenues from pot, that are the important economic issue. But what’s actually going to determine how much better things will get when countries legalize or decriminalize drugs is what other purposes they shift those enforcement funds to. Doubtless many governments won’t have a hard time find other wasteful ways to spend their “savings.”Report