Monday, May 11, 2009

Marijuana Law not worth cost of enforcing

It makes far more sense to raise taxes from pot sales than to waste
our shrinking resources in a futile effort to stop them.

Trying to twist a tourniquet on the state of California's still-
bleeding finances, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration last
week reportedly floated a plan to commute the sentences of 38,000
"low-level" inmates and possibly close state prisons and send the
convicts to county jails.

Which must sound like a bit of black humor to Shasta County Sheriff
Tom Bosenko. The jail is already routinely full, and early releases
are a chronic problem. And on top of that, Bosenko is suggesting that
he might have to close a floor or two of the eight-story jail as part
of county budget cuts. That will leave local criminals less
accountable for their actions even as local police agencies are
cutting their staffs.

A recipe for a crime wave? Perhaps, but the looming crisis should
also prompt a hard look at what we consider crimes. In particular,
let's take up Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's recent call for a debate
on legalizing and taxing marijuana.

In 2006, the most recent year for which statistics are available,
police in California made 65,000 felony and misdemeanor arrests for
marijuana. Relatively few of those lawbreakers ended up doing hard
time in state prison, but the endless pursuit of marijuana smokers
and suppliers is a substantial drain on increasingly scarce law-
enforcement resources at every level, from police to courts to
probation offices.

And for what? Marijuana use remains common, even among the teenagers
whose well-being is the most common rationale for our current drug laws.

Indeed, among teenagers pot smoking appears to be at least as
prevalent as tobacco use. A 2006 survey by the California Tobacco
Control Program found that about 15.4 percent of high schoolers had
smoked a cigarette within the past 30 days, but the state Justice
Department's most recent survey of youth drug use found 15 percent of
ninth-graders - and 24 percent of 11th-graders - had used marijuana
in the past 30 days.

So the ban isn't keeping our children safe, even as the profits of an
illicit business drive pot growers to take over our backcountry and
fuel drug wars that make the headlines from Mexico scarier than those
out of Iraq.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a Democrat from San Francisco, has
introduced a bill to legalize marijuana, treating it essentially the
same as alcohol. Users would have to be 21 years old. Smoking would
still be banned in public, much as liquor is barred in parks. Driving
under the influence would still be a crime.

Oh, and dealers would be licensed and taxed, raising an estimated
$1.3 billion a year. Heaven knows the state could use the extra
money. The budget crisis is forcing massive school cutbacks, dramatic
reductions in health services for the poor, the sacking of police and

Let's save a few cops' and teachers' jobs by raising money from
marijuana sales instead of spending money in a vain attempt to stamp
them out. Let's keep embezzlers and car thieves and repeat DUI
drivers locked up over pot dealers whose only crime is supplying
consenting adults.

We don't want to see more marijuana use, especially among young
people. But higher taxes and education have steadily cut tobacco use
over the years - to trust the numbers, far more effectively than the
outright ban on marijuana. Isn't it time we try what's worked instead
of what's proven to be a dismal failure?

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