By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
As with things in the United States, a good idea can become a great one if it involves making money — and doubly so if it generates new forms of tax revenue. Thus at a time of housing foreclosures and bank failures, when California’s state government faces a whopping $21 billion projected budget deficit and the city of Los Angeles is sinking under $983 million in red ink, licensing and taxing marijuana suddenly make sense even to some who might have abhorred the idea.
Lawful growers and retailers could cough up, say, $50 an ounce in taxes or fees and still charge less to consumers than the $150-an-ounce prices common on the black market. Governments would rake it in — and also save a fantastic amount on arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning pot offenders.
Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron, author of the 2004 book Drug War Crimes: The Consequences of Prohibition, makes a case that legalizing all banned drugs would benefit taxpayers nationwide by $77 billion a year, in both generating new tax income and eliminating the costs of arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning offenders. Since marijuana represents about a third of the illicit drug economy, legalizing pot would make a difference of roughly $25 billion, he says.
Miron’s estimate is generally in line with figures compiled by pot-advocacy organizations, although getting firm numbers is notoriously difficult given the vastly different ways in which law-enforcement agencies catalog arrests and report marijuana data.
Jon Gettman, a former NORML president who operates a public data bank at drugscience.org, claims that legalizing marijuana would enrich the public by $42 billion a year. In breaking down that sum, Gettman puts the current cost of legal enforcement at nearly $11 billion. He also claims that federal, state and local governments lose out on $31 billion annually in taxes and charges that could be gleaned from the massive industry, based on an overall estimate of a marijuana trade that totals $113 billion a year.
Mirken, the Marijuana Policy Project spokesman, concedes that squishy numbers invite attacks from critics. But he adds, “No doubt it’s a big hunk of money.”
Watching that money flow to criminals and cartel bosses has added impetus to the push for change.
Pro-marijuana forces, well-financed and increasingly centralized in New York and Washington, D.C., are often directly involved in helping to craft reform legislation because of their deep knowledge about a subject murky to many in power.
The New York–based Drug Policy Alliance, for example, employs 45 people and operates satellite offices in Washington, D.C., and in the states of New Mexico and California. Its annual budget of $8 million comes in part from George Soros’ Open Policy Institute and also from about 25,000 small donors and a number of very wealthy businessmen, most notably tech guru John Gilmore of Cygnus Solutions, Peter B. Lewis of Progressive Insurance, John Glen Sperling of the University of Phoenix, and George Zimmer of the Men’s Wearhouse.
Nadelmann, the 52-year-old top executive, says he spends about half of his time on the road, engaging in debates, giving speeches and conferring with pot advocates to draft voter initiatives and to map out strategies.
Close contact with local groups enables him to marshal resources where they are needed and also to bring hot spots to nationwide media attention. Nadelmann can rattle off lists of issues and locales — the drive that brought medical pot this year to Maine, the statewide decriminalization approved in Massachusetts, the ballot tussles ahead in Arizona, Nevada and Oregon. He claims significant credit for Proposition 215, California’s landmark 1996 state ballot measure that authorized medical cannabis.
“The 215 campaign was being run by local activists,” Nadelmann says. “I got involved, put together major funders and campaign managers, and turned it into a professional campaign and won that thing.” During a recent stretch, Nadelmann was flying from Santa Barbara to Houston, then to San Diego, then back to New York, then returning to Los Angeles — all to preach pot, all in a span of a few weeks.
As advocates step up the pressure, public opinions are shifting. The Gallup Poll showed 23 percent support for legalization in 1983. This year, the finding was 44 percent, with more than half of the voters in California in favor.
The number of highly placed government officials and jurists who have joined the public call for marijuana reform would have been hard to imagine even a decade ago. One example is retired Orange County Superior Court Judge James P. Gray, author of the 2001 book Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It.
Gray argues that drug prohibitions are a “golden goose” for terrorist organizations, a view that has gained traction with the public.
“We truly are seeing the most rapid gains in public support for making marijuana legal that I’ve ever seen,” Nadelmann says. “It really feels like a new age.”
In Nadelmann’s view, the changing attitudes largely stem from the efforts of the Drug Policy Alliance — formed by a merger of two smaller groups in 2000 — and similar organizations, such as NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project.