Legalized Pot Isn’t Going to Save Us

Meaning it won’t turn out to be the longterm solution to the perennial financial worries that afflict the states where we live. Everyone is aware of that by now. Aren’t they?

We’ve reached the stage where the apparent fiscal advantages of legalization will overcome the natural resistance of communities to legalize hitherto prohibited substances. Now media accounts and government reports emphasize the revenue we can expect from full legalization. That revenue will come from taxes, of course. And it’ll be significant, at least at first. Although as I seem to constantly be reminding people, as the price of cannabis falls (which it will), so does the tax revenue. Too bad, so sad, but that’s how it’s turned out. Predictably, of course, but somehow people manage to ignore it.

Still, a place like New York City, with its vast expenses and failing infrastructure– such as a subway system on which most of the population relies, and which is quickly becoming inoperable– the prospect of windfall profits is almost irresistible. It can turn an inveterate opponent of legalization into an enthusiastic ally.

Or take New Mexico, with a total population of 2.1 million (about the same as the Sacramento metro area) spread over 122,000 square miles (5th largest state). Even given a banner year for oil and gas production, the state has needs that far exclude revenue. The promise of a windfall should be enough to overcome resistance there, too.

Besides, too many New Mexicans are crossing the line into Colorado, and as one put it, “we don’t want those people getting our money, do we?”

Surprisingly, even Oklahoma, perhaps the most consistently conservative state in the Union, has become a “hotbed” of interest in pot.

There’s a downside to all this, of course. Cannabis is still a drug, and although it doesn’t match alcohol or tobacco in terms of health consequences– neither do most other drugs — there is evidence of problems to come. That shouldn’t surprise us. We’re just not hearing much about it in the media. It’s been pushed to the back burner.

That’s symptomatic of a larger flaw, historically, in the way we think about drug abuse and drug epidemics. We focus on the specific drug, as if someone who uses heroin, for instance, can’t also develop a serious problem with alcohol, or pills, or methamphetamine, or this new, more potent form of marijuana that’s showing up in various places.

The drugs can and do change, but the problems society has with them are remarkably constant. Overdose fatalities, for example, go up and down– recently, up– but they never go away completely. Disease transmission from IV drug use has peaks and valleys, but it never goes away completely either. Same with crime. I recall reading about the smugglers who flew their small planes across the border back in the 70’s, putting down at unlighted strips in the Southeast and offloading bales of marijuana for resale to the yanqui. When cocaine hit the supply chain, they quickly realized they could transport far more of that in a plane’s hold, and exchange for a lot more cash. They switched.

In many states, the legalization ship has already sailed. It’s weird, though. Where the debate was once overheated towards the negative, it now seems oddly blasé about the potential for harm.