Time For Marijuana Legalization?

One of 14 marijuana fields located in the Crabtree Nature Preserve, Cook County, Ill., July 25, 2007. DEA

Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and CBSNews.com.
Apparently, it was nothing personal after all. Apparently, it was strictly business all along.

After generations of defending capital punishment and marijuana possession laws on moral, ethical and religious grounds, after years of declaring that the death penalty acted as a deterrent against violent crime and that pot smokers were more dangerous to society than, say, alcohol consumers, all of a sudden thanks to our economic crisis more and more mainstream powerbrokersare considering dramatic changes to our criminal justice system.

The New York Times today has a late-arriving pieceby Ian Urbina which posits that lawmakers in several states are considering abandoning the death penalty because it's just too expensive and cuts into other law enforcement priorities. State officials are beginning to acknowledge that they can more productively spend their budget funds on cracking unsolved cases or ensuring better police protection than on keeping pot smokers in prison or fighting for decades with capital defendants. This, Urbina writes, is forcing a sea-change around the nation:

"Last year, in an effort to cut costs, probation and parole agencies in Arizona, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Jersey and Vermont reduced or dropped prison time for thousands of offenders who violated conditions of their release. In some states, probation and parole violators account for up to two-thirds of prison admissions each year; typical violations are failing drug tests or missing meetings with parole officers.

As prison crowding has become acute, lawsuits have followed in states like California, and politicians find themselves having to choose among politically unattractive options: spend scarce tax dollars on expanding prisons, loosen laws to stem the flow of incarcerations, or release some nonviolent offenders."


This trend toward releasing non-violent offenders naturally begs the question: what about legalizing marijuana possession and lowering the drinking age? A California lawmaker Monday introduced legislation that would legalize (and tax) pot there. In Colorado, as seen this past Sunday on 60 Minutes, the police chief in Boulder (which houses a raucous University of Colorado) made a compelling case for saving money by reducing the drinking age from 21. Better to have police officers tracking violent crime, the argument goes, than writing tickets for college kids who are going to drink no matter what.

These declarations, from the political and legal arena, are not just isolated voices shouting into the wilderness. Consider the late, great Milton Friedman, the Nobel Laureate, former Reagan advisor, and esteemed scholar associated with the very conservative Hoover Institution. He was among hundreds of important economistswho argue that pot should be legalized and taxed - and that the income from such taxation could generate billions in new revenues and billions more in enforcement savings. If you live in California, what would you rather have? Pot smokers whose cases are tying up the legal system? Or better health care and roads thanks to a marijuana tax. I'm just asking the question-and others are too.

Friedman and his colleagues first made these arguments years ago - before the economy tanked. Is it time to take his view more seriously with states facing huge budget shortfalls that threaten to curtail vital projects and policies? It is such a great leap from releasing prisoners from prison early to save money and not sending them there at all to save more? I would suspect a survey of police officials and prosecutors, and a survey of state budget officials, would indicate that the matter is being taken more seriously today than it ever has been.

It's not my place to advocate anything - so please don't write and accuse me of being Cheech or Chong. All I am saying is that the economic case for legalizing marijuana, and for lower the drinking rate, is as compelling as it has ever been and that, in a time of great changes in the interaction between government and the governed, it would not be the worst thing in the world to have a serious national debate on the topic. If we are going to lower state and federal budgets for criminal justice, if we are going to be emptying our prisons anyway to save costs, let's make sure we do it in a way that maximizes the opportunities available to us.
  • Andrew Cohen

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