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... h, proceeds from marijuana sales are kept in the underground economy. The profits go untaxed, and the money generated is kept off the books. Fortune magazine estimated the potential tax earnings from legal marijuana sales at $ 11 billion per year, and that only accounts for taxes on the marijuana, not including taxes on the income generated by the legal sellers, distributors, and producers (Kupfer, 1988). Some opponents of legalization argue that it is inappropriate for society to profit from drug use.
Such a policy, it is argued, puts the state into the position of promoting drug use. Legalization supporters counter that people in general use drugs of one kind or another, mostly legal ones. Thus, the responsibility of society is to ensure that relatively safe drugs are available, although discouraged, while the relatively dangerous drugs should be less available and more actively discouraged. The United States already taxes alcohol and tobacco, the two worst public health problems our society faces. Society would profit tremendously from legal marijuana sales if we decide to take advantage of the market already in existence. IMPACT ON SOCIETY, DRUG USE Finally, what would a society with legal marijuana look like, and what would be the impact on drug use in general?
We can look toward The Netherlands for part of the answer, although we would certainly not get the full picture since marijuana and hashish are still officially illegal in The Netherlands. Their policy of tolerance toward soft drugs has, however, resulted in effective decriminalization of use and transfer of small amounts of cannabis. In spite of this acceptance of cannabis, use rates by both youth and adults are much lower than the reported rates in other European countries or in the United States (van der Wal, 1985; van de Wijngaart, 1987). In addition, the rate of heroin addiction in The Netherlands is reported to be slowly decreasing from its current estimated rate of 0. 14 % (much lower than the United States), and the crime rate, stable since 1984, may be falling (Drug Abuse Education Newsletter, 1988). While it is true that the United States is not The Netherlands, the example of the Dutch system provides at least an indication that marijuana legalization would not be the disaster that opponents say it would be. Indeed, if marijuana legalization means people would avoid use of alcohol or hard drugs and would use marijuana instead, the net result would be positive, since the harm both to the user and the society would be less.
Critics claim that the number of marijuana users would increase after legalization. It must be conceded that this claim may be true in some respects, although the net result would hardly be the disaster opponents predict. After marijuana legalization there will be an increase in the number of people willing to admit that they are marijuana users, because a significant number of users will no longer fear admitting their use. NORML estimates that there are currently some 30 to 50 million regular marijuana users in the United States, many more than the government's reported 11. 8 million. Thus, an initial explosion in the number of users is likely, is no cause for alarm, and is easily understood.
Some "new" users who really would be using marijuana for the first time may formerly have been users of alcohol, a drug that is more dangerous than marijuana. Although these people would still be using a drug, they would be doing less damage to themselves than they would have otherwise. Thus, less harm would result from their drug use than would have occurred under marijuana prohibition. It is likely that a period of a few years would be needed to stabilize the marijuana using population, and to begin reducing the number of users. Yet as the example of The Netherlands proves, it is possible to reduce the number of users without imposing criminal or even civil penalties against them. The first problem is getting a true handle on the extent of marijuana use.
There would probably be a need for a vigorous campaign to reduce the risk of abuse and to discourage first use. The experience of American society with reduction of tobacco use should provide the groundwork for setting up a discouragement campaign against marijuana use. It is difficult to predict the effects of legalization precisely because we have so little experience at legalizing a social drug. The example of the repeal of alcohol prohibition, as noted above, left a bitter taste because of the immediate rise in abuse indicators, specifically cirrhosis deaths. Arguably, American society has learned a great deal in the more than 50 years since alcohol became legal. NORML contends that the United States has matured since then, and that a responsible plan for production, distribution, and regulation of marijuana can be developed; indeed, such a plan was formulated in 1981 (Evans et al. , 1981).
The concern over what message is being sent by legalizing a drug is understandable, and legitimate. The message, however, is not a negative one. The drug suggested for legalization is marijuana, a reasonably safe drug if used responsibly, a drug that has never caused an overdose death (Grinspoon, 1987; Young, 1988). Legalization with age limits for purchase and use is the only way to prevent underage use; few criminal dealers ask for proof of I.
D. before making a sale. Indeed, the concern should be over what message is sent when society makes alcohol and tobacco, both deadly and addictive, legally available, and prohibits marijuana, a relatively less dangerous drug. The message is obviously not one of concern for the society at large, nor for the health of the individual user. At best, no intelligible message is discerned. At worst, the society is thought of as hypocritical and culturally biased.
CONCLUSIONS What, then, is the future of marijuana in America? The direction in which our government is currently heading is toward more enforcement and tougher penalties. This direction, however, leads inevitably to a dead-end. In more than 50 years, prohibition of marijuana has failed to stop marijuana use and abuse. It has instead created a large criminal class out of citizens who are otherwise law-abiding, peaceful, productive members of society. Those citizens who have not had their lives and careers ruined by an arrest have to live in fear and mistrust of their own government and the police.
Meanwhile, the problems created by the legal drugs alcohol and tobacco go largely unabated. Citizens who decide to use a drug recreation ally have little legal recourse except these very dangerous drugs. Something must change. A better system for managing marijuana use would involve civil regulation, taxation, and control. Such a system could take one of many forms. The system would be set up to guarantee the licit availability of good-quality marijuana at reasonable prices (below criminal market levels), while at the same time discouraging first use and abuse with age restrictions, honest health warnings, restrictions on availability, and other mechanisms.
The financial impact from legalized marijuana would be positive, from enhanced tax revenue as well as redirection of current antidrug expenditures. The effect on criminal justice would be to free considerable police time to deal with other, more serious problems. The experience of The Netherlands shows that the societal impact would not be negative overall, and in fact would be positive in reducing rates of abuse of marijuana and other substances. Marijuana legalization is a good idea, whether in fashion or not. American society needs sensible, rational answers to such pressing problems as the nation's drug problems. Legalizing marijuana can help.
It is time to take a fresh look.
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