Stoned On The Strip

Yesterday legal marijuana sales began in Nevada.  Well, why not?  In the Silver State there’s already legalized gambling and prostitution, a tradition of Rat Pack boozing and partying, and a prevailing “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” ethos.   So why not add marijuana to the mix, to ensure that every imaginable mood-altering option is available to people who can pay with the coin of the realm?

They don’t call it Sin City for nothing.

las-vegas-stripNevada now is the fifth state to legalize the sale and possession of marijuana for recreational use.  In Nevada, adults 21 and over can purchase and possess up to an ounce of marijuana, but public use is still prohibited — because, even in Las Vegas, you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

Some of the Las Vegas marijuana stores, with names like Reef Dispensaries and Euphoria Wellness, opened at midnight, to take advantage of the first moments that the new law took effect, and reported long lines and brisk business.  One purchaser said “you don’t have to hide in the corner anymore and feel bad about it,” and thereby articulated one of the core concepts underlying Las Vegas culture generally.

The trend toward general legalization of marijuana seems pretty clear and probably is close to irreversible, but I’ll still be interested in how it all works out for Las Vegas.  Drinking seems to go a lot better with gaming than marijuana does.  You wouldn’t think that stoned individuals would be particularly keen about going out to gamble, where they probably would wonder whether everyone was staring at them and whether it was their turn to take a hit at the blackjack table.  Maybe Nevada is just trying to stimulate sales of Dark Side of the Moon.

Marijuana, Kids, And Jobs

In a few weeks Ohioans will vote on Issue 3, a ballot initiative that would allow people 21 and over to use marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes and permit marijuana to be grown in designated locations in the state.

When Kish and I were in a waiting area yesterday, we saw two of the commercials about Issue 3 — one pro, one con — back to back.  And the themes of the commercials were familiar to anyone who has ever voted on a ballot issue:  jobs and kids.  The pro-Issue 3 commercial emphasized that passing Issue 3 and allowing legalized marijuana sales would create jobs, and one of the bullet points for the anti-Issue 3 ad was that Issue 3 would allow the sale of marijuana-infused candy, which could end up in the hands of kids.

We’ve seen similar approaches in prior  campaigns.  The initiative to legalize casinos in Ohio, which passed, was all about jobs.  The Ohio Lottery initiative, which passed, was all about devoting a share of lottery proceeds to education . . . and kids.  It’s as if the campaign ad consultants sit around, thinking of every potential job-related or kid-related theme, no matter the issue being presented, because they just can’t resist sounding those tried and true messages.

Some complex issues are presented by the marijuana legalization initiative — issues like whether marijuana does have medical benefits under certain circumstances, whether legalization has caused an increase, or decrease, in crime or car accidents in states where marijuana has been legalized, and whether Issue 3 in fact creates a legalized monopoly, among others.  The issues presented by Issue 3 go a lot deeper than whether a few thousand jobs will be created in a state with millions of residents, or whether marijuana-laced lollipops will find their way into the stream of commerce.  But jobs and kids are what the TV commercials talk about.

Jobs on one side, kids on the other.  Maybe that’s why the most recent polls on Issue 3 show that Ohioans are evenly divided on the issue.

Not In Kansas Anymore

 After arriving in Denver and enduring the Avis experience yesterday, I stopped at a Wendy’s for a quick burger — and there, across the road next to the fast food, was a “recreational marijuana” shop called Euflora.  It’s the first one we’ve seen on our trip, so I had to snap a picture as we drove by.

I imagine Colorado’s fast food outlets aren’t exactly unhappy to have one of their restaurants located next to a place where customers know they will soon have the munchies.  I wonder if this Wendy’s store’s sales have increased since Euflora opened next door?

Euflora had the same bright signage and clean outward appearance of other commercial establishments in the suburban sprawl.  At first we thought the shop had three drive-thru windows, which made us laugh — but then we realized the building was obviously a converted bank branch.
From a bank to a legal pot shop.  The world is changing before our eyes.

First Decriminalization, Then Legalization, Then Taxation?

Yesterday California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill decriminalizing the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana in California.  The new law takes effect in January.  Thereafter, possession of an ounce or less will be a simple infraction punishable by a maximum $100 fine.

Interestingly, Schwarzenegger justified his signing of the bill solely on cost grounds.  He says California will save money on prosecutors, court personnel, police officers, and publicly provided defense attorneys who otherwise would be paid to prosecute marijuana possession misdemeanor offenses.  In 2008, for example, California had 61,000 arrests on misdemeanor possession charges.

California’s decision to decriminalize small quantities of marijuana is an interim step in the process that I think is probably inevitable.  Eventually cash-strapped states will find the lure of legalizing marijuana, and then taxing its sale, to be irresistible.  California faces a massive budget deficit.  By decriminalizing the possession of marijuana, California eliminates an expense item.  By legalizing marijuana and taxing its sale, California adds money to its revenue side.  With states having justified the legalization of casino gambling on job creation and revenue grounds, can legalized marijuana be far behind?

Higher Revenue (Cont.)

I’ve written before on California’s budget problems and the lure of revenue from legalizing, and then taxing, the sale of marijuana.  That posting has turned out to be a bit prescient, because a committee of the California General Assembly has now approved a bill to legalize and tax the sale of marijuana.  Interestingly, the proposal is that the revenue from the “fee” of $50 per ounce would be used, in part, to fund drug eradication and drug awareness efforts.

Splendor (And Questions) In The Grass

California — the state that has legislated pretty much everything through ballot initiatives — may well have three marijuana legalization initiatives on the 2010 ballot.

California’s medical marijuana business culture is interesting.  I was unaware that,as the article reports, there are “hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries across the state” as a result of the 1996 ballot initiative that allows individuals to smoke marijuana for medical purposes.  How are those businesses regulated by the state, if at all?  And, given the fact that marijuana is illegal under federal law, how do those businesses operate?  Do they file tax returns that identify their business as “medical marijuana dispensary”?  How do they get the marijuana that they dispense, and how do they determine if individuals have a legitimate medical need for their product?

Higher Revenue

The California Board of Equalization, which is charged with administrative authority over the State’s taxes, estimated that a legislative proposal to legalize the growth, sale, and consumption of marijuana as a means of bridging California’s budget gap would raise nearly $1.4 billion per year.  Such a sum would not, of course, cover the entire California budget deficit — which amounts to well over $20 billion — but it is not chicken feed, either.

One wonders whether the enormous budget pressures that states are facing will cause them to make choices they really hadn’t considered palatable before.  In Ohio, for example, the Governor retreated from long-standing opposition to legalized gambling to allow video slot machines at seven Ohio racetracks.  The proposal is supposed to raise $1 billion in revenues and thereby help to close a multi-billion dollar budget deficit.  (I’ve never understood, incidentally, how it is really possible to estimate, with any degree of accuracy, the likely revenues from legalized gambling, and it would be interesting to see whether such estimates, in retrospect, have even come close to what is actually achieved.)

From a political standpoint, the great thing about sin taxes is that the people who don’t engage in the sin can decry the sin, raise the tax, and enjoy the revenue, all at the same time.  Such activities are easier than raising taxes on the general population or cutting existing programs or governmental employees.  It may well be that the poor economy and budget problems, coupled with those political considerations, make more progress toward legalizing marijuana than NORML ever has.