Editorial: Contemplating the Rocky Mountain high

Posted: Jan 12, 2014 10:31 AM
Editorial: Contemplating the Rocky Mountain high
Rob Nikolewski. Photo courtesy of Santa Fe New Mexican/Clyde Mueller.

Rob Nikolewski. Photo courtesy of Santa Fe New Mexican/Clyde Mueller.

It’s reefer madness!

No, not the stories of people lined up around the block on the first day of the new year in places across Colorado to buy marijuana for recreational purposes.

I’m talking about the world-turned-upside-down reaction from opposite political corners in the aftermath of the Rocky Mountain State passing the law.

Last week, the New York Times, the bastion of all good-thinking liberals, came out with an editorial bringing up concerns about Colorado’s “Marijuana Experiment.”

Yet at the same time, the National Review, the bastion of all right-thinking conservatives, came out with its own editorial, headlined, “Sensible On Weed,” congratulating voters for making “the prudent choice.”

So the Gray Lady’s editorial board, which has never had a problem with espousing social issues such abortion or same-sex marriage gets its knickers in a twist over Colorado’s decision but the National Review is cool with it?

Cats living with dogs!

Now the libertarian in me has no problems with Colorado’s decision (or that of Washington state, which is in the process of instituting its own pot decriminalization measure). In the words of the über-free marketeer Milton Friedman, “The government has no more right to tell me what goes into my mouth than it has to tell me what comes out of my mouth.”

But while I support decriminalization but I am willing to listen to those who oppose it, such as former Carter administration Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph Califano, who has argued that for every dollar we spend on taxing alcohol and cigarettes, we spend nine dollars in health care costs, criminal justice expenses and social welfare spending.

Here in New Mexico, former state Rep. Dennis Kintigh of Roswell — who used to be an FBI narcotics officer — points out that prescription drugs are manufactured to extremely high standards and heavily regulated and taxed.

“Why then do we have this nightmare with prescription drugs,” Kintigh told me in an interview last year. “If that’s the panacea that solves everything, how can there be this drug overdose death rate that is going through the ceiling with prescription drugs?”

He makes a good point — and a few others, too. You can see my interview with Kintigh, as well as one with a supporter of decriminalization, at: http://newmexico.watchdog.org/16671

No, my chief concern with the Colorado law is based on issues centering on the collision of government and money.

In Colorado, marijuana will be taxed at 25 percent (plus the usual state sales tax of 2.9 percent) and sales are expected to generate $67 million. Should that come to pass, great.

But we know from experience how government works and I wouldn’t be surprised that, in time, as Colorado officials grow accustomed to that tax income, marijuana is looked upon as just another sin tax and – as we have seen with cigarettes and liquor – the tax rate increases.

When that tax balloons to 40 to 50 percent, there will be a powerful incentive to create a black market and sellers will come up with illegal ways to supply what consumers want.

You can rail about the social and moral advantages and disadvantages of legalizing marijuana but my worry is over government’s inexorable desire for more.

Look here at New Mexico. 

When the Legislative Lottery Scholarship was created in the mid-1990s, voters were assured that no taxpayer dollars would be used to fund the program. But now, with lottery ticket sales stagnant and tuition costs rising, the lottery scholarship is running out of money and both the Governor’s Office and Legislative Finance Committee have called for spending between $16 million-$22 million from the general fund (taxpayers) until a long-term fix is made.

Here’s another example:

While in grad school in New York City, I read that when the George Washington Bridge started construction in 1927, it was under the presumption that once the bonds on the bridge were paid off, the tollbooths would come down. That was 87 years ago and the tolls are still up. And the cost going into the city today on the GW? Thirteen bucks.

So if you think a government-run program that generates millions can stand a decent chance of reining itself in, well, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

(This column originally appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican. Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski)