California should legalize marijuana to generate revenue

The state of California is swamped in a $26.3 billion budget shortfall. This crisis has galvanized efforts to legalize marijuana in an effort to generate revenue via taxation rather than spending money on enforcement.

Despite the newfound momentum, the bill that would legalize small amounts of marijuana possession and growth known as Proposition 19 failed to pass during last week’s elections in California. While 46 percent voted in favor of the bill, another 54 percent voted against it.

Prop 19 would have legalized marijuana growth of up to 25 square feet and possession of up to an ounce for anyone over 21 years of age.

During an interview on NBC’s “The Tonight Show” Monday night, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said he believed it failed to pass because of another law he signed earlier this year called SB 1449. That bill downgraded the penalty for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction, which Schwarzenegger equated to “a speeding ticket.” He felt that Prop 19 “went a little bit too far” and “was written badly.”

Indeed, this would have only been the next stepping stone toward full legalization from the bill Schwarzenegger signed and mentioned in his interview. Yet he still made a mistake in opposing Prop 19. SB 1449 only partially decriminalized marijuana and did not legalize it like Prop 19 would have for growth and personal use. Although SB 1449 was a step in the right direction, marijuana is still illegal nonetheless.

The bill suffered its fate for several reasons. All major candidates for governor and U.S. Senator in California opposed it, even thought it had endorsements from the NAACP and Latino Voters League. They felt the bill would reduce the amount of blacks and Latinos in the state prison system, which holds a disproportionate number of these two racial groups. In addition, supporters of Prop 19 only raised a relatively meager $4.2 million, and could not fend off a considerable advertising campaign by their opposition.

The NAACP and Latino Voters League were correct in supporting the bill, particularly in the interests of furthering civil rights. The Drug Policy Alliance noted that California had a 25-fold increase in drug offenders in state prison from 1981 to 2000. While blacks and Latinos are a combined 38.4 percent of California males ages 18 to 59, they are 68.4 percent of those in prison on drug charges. As of Dec. 31, 2002, 22 percent of men and 33 percent of women in California state prisons were doing time for drug-related charges, costing the state nearly a billion dollars each year. Rather than spend this kind of money for depriving people of their freedom to simply smoke a plant, California should legalize marijuana and generate revenue with taxation rather than spend it on incarceration.

But perhaps even more importantly than addressing the budget deficit, California should recognize the hypocrisy of banning marijuana when tobacco kills more than 400,000 people each year in the U.S., and any adult is allowed to smoke it.

Poor diet and physical inactivity kill 365,000 people each year, nearly the same number as tobacco. Maybe California and other states should legalize marijuana and send those people to a health camp instead. After all, the government is just trying to help its citizens, right?

Jack Enright is a sophomore political science and economics double major from Tomball.