Economic case for legalising marijuana

Economic case for legalising marijuana

BY Neville Cooke

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

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More politicians need to show some backbone in making an economic case for legalising marijuana. For years, marijuana-legalisation advocates in Jamaica have trotted out argument after argument in support of their cause: Prohibition doesn't stop people from using the drug. Pot's not as harmful as legal substances like alcohol or cigarettes. Deadly street/gang violence stems from marijuana's illegality. The youth disparity in marijuana arrests amounts to jobs discrimination. Marijuana has scientifically proven medicinal benefits. Lives can be ruined by just one minor pot arrest.

But money, more than moral appeals or anything else, might talk the loudest in the drive to decriminalise marijuana in Jamaica, particularly in the current era of budget shortfalls and lingering economic uncertainty. And with financial concerns helping to fuel the passage of historic pot legalisation laws, like in Colorado and Washington State in November — as well as the introduction of a Bill in the US House of Representatives, would legalise and levy an excise tax on the sale of the drug — perhaps now is a better time than ever to convince skeptical politicians in Jamaica of the cash benefits of getting into the marijuana business.

The economic argument, at the end of the day, will probably be the most effective in changing this terrible policy Jamaica has had in place for too long.

In Washington, despite 75 years of federal marijuana prohibition, the Justice Department said on Thursday that states can let people use the drug, license people to grow it, and even allow adults to stroll into stores and buy it as long as the weed is kept away from kids, the black market and federal property.

The policy change embraces what Justice Department officials call a "trust, but verify" approach between the federal government and states that enact recreational marijuana use.

The fact that legalisation of marijuana would generate a fiscal dividend does not, by itself, make it a better policy than prohibition. Legalisation could have many effects, and opinions differ on whether these are desirable. Both sides in this debate, however, should want to know the order of magnitude of fiscal benefit that might arise from legalisation.

Several specific aspects of this argument bear comments. For example, the budgetary savings that could come from reduced criminal-justice expenditure on drug prohibition. However, for this component of the effect to show up in government budgets, policymakers would have to lay off police officers, prosecutors, prison guards, and the likes. Such a move would be politically painful, so it might not occur. Reduced expenditure on enforcing prohibition can still be beneficial if those criminal-justice resources are redeployed to better uses, although that outcome will not be easy to achieve.

None of these considerations weakens the broader case against marijuana prohibition, which has always rested on the crime, corruption, and curtailment of freedom and civil liberties that are the side effects of attempting to fight marijuana use with police officers and prisons.

I hope my arguments provide two additional reasons to end marijuana prohibition: reduce expenditure on law enforcement; and an increase in tax from legalised sales.

Come on politicians, show some backbone. Jamaica cannot be too beholden to the United States, United Kingdom and Canada to act in our own self-interest. Our leaders could use this opportunity to be proactive in laying out Jamaica's place in what is becoming a legal and global marijuana market. Let's be proactive.

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