George Will

The councilman wants to close dispensaries whose intent is profit rather than "compassionate" distribution of medicine. Good luck with that: Privacy considerations will shield doctors from investigations of their lucrative 15-minute transactions with "patients."

Colorado's medical marijuana dispensaries have hired lobbyists to seek taxation and regulation, for the same reason Nevada's brothel industry wants to be taxed and regulated by the state: The Nevada Brothel Association regards taxation as legitimation and insurance against prohibition as the booming state's frontier mentality recedes.

State governments, misunderstanding markets and ravenous for revenues, exaggerate the potential windfall from taxing legalized marijuana. California thinks it might reap $1.4 billion. But Rosalie Pacula, a RAND Corporation economist, estimates that prohibition raises marijuana production costs at least 400 percent, so legalization would cause prices to fall much more than the 50 percent the $1.4 billion estimate assumes.

Furthermore, marijuana is a normal good in that demand for it varies with price. Legalization, by drastically lowering price, will increase marijuana's public health costs, including mental and respiratory problems, and motor vehicle accidents.

States attempting to use high taxes to keep marijuana prices artificially high would leave a large market for much cheaper illegal -- unregulated and untaxed -- marijuana. So revenues (and law enforcement savings) would depend on the price falling close to the cost of production. In the 1990s, a mere $2 per pack difference between U.S. and Canadian cigarette prices created such a smuggling problem that Canada repealed a cigarette tax increase.

Suthers has multiple drug-related worries. Colorado ranks sixth in the nation in identity theft, two-thirds of which is driven by the state's $1.4 billion annual methamphetamine addiction. He is loath to see complete legalization of marijuana at a moment when new methods of cultivation are producing plants in which the active ingredient, THC, is "seven, eight times as concentrated" as it used to be. Furthermore, he was pleasantly surprised when a survey of nonusing young people revealed that health concerns did not explain nonuse. The main explanation was the law: "We underestimate the number of people who care that something is illegal."

But they will care less as law itself loses its dignity. By mocking the idea of lawful behavior, legalization of medical marijuana may be more socially destructive than full legalization.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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