"In almost every respect imaginable, Prohibition was a failure," former New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent concluded at the close of his new book, "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition." "It encouraged criminality and institutionalized hypocrisy. It deprived the government of revenue, stripped the gears of the political system, and proposed profound limitations on individual rights."
America's laws against marijuana have had similar effect. About 40 percent of Americans have tried the weed. In March, the Partnership for a Drug- Free America reported that 38 percent of ninth- through 12th-graders studied in 2009 reported consuming marijuana in the past month.
The last three presidents opposed legalizing marijuana, even though President Obama says he smoked marijuana, George W. Bush hinted that he did and Bill Clinton said he did not inhale. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger inhaled on camera -- and the most he'll say now is that it is "time for a debate" on California Proposition 19, the November ballot measure that would legalize marijuana under state (but not federal) law.
In 2005, Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron looked at the cost of marijuana prohibition. He estimated that legalizing and taxing marijuana would yield $6.2 billion in annual tax revenue nationally -- assuming that governments levied taxes comparable to alcohol and tobacco taxes. In addition, the federal government would save $2.4 billion, while state and local governments would save $5.3 billion on enforcement.
Miron has argued that usage rates would not necessarily rise if marijuana were legal. I think usage will go up; even proponents admit that Proposition 19's passage probably would lower the cost. There is no way to sugarcoat the possibility that, despite bill language that legalizes possession only for adults 21 years old or older, some teens may find it easier to get pot. And that is not a good thing.
On the other hand, it's not as if prohibition has put a dent in teen usage. The same survey that found that found 38 percent of high school students had used marijuana found that 39 percent consumed alcohol in the past month.
Okrent believes that legalizing and regulating marijuana could make it harder for young teens to get. The repeal of Prohibition -- with closing hours, age limits and government's ability to shutter violators -- "made it harder, not easier, to get a drink."
Pleasant Hill Police Chief Pete Dunbar told the San Francisco Chronicle Editorial Board that the violence associated with the marijuana trade makes it "the most dangerous drug" of all. Hence his opposition to Proposition 19.