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.
Nevada 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.
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.
As exhibit number one, consider Michelle Malkin, a reliably conservative political commentator. Yesterday she wrote about her visit to a marijuana shop in Colorado — not to rip the legalization movement, as you might expect, but rather to describe the positive impact marijuana use has had for her mother-in-law, who is dealing with cancer and has experienced problems with loss of appetite. By using the legal marijuana in Colorado, her mother-in-law’s food intake has improved, leading to hope that she will get stronger and weather the ravages of cancer treatment. And, as a bottom line, Malkin notes that the operators of the shops carefully run neat businesses, pay taxes, employ people, and provide goods and services that people like her mother-in-law want and need.
A number of states have changed their marijuana laws in recent years, but Colorado appears to be the focus of attention. In states like Ohio, where there doesn’t seem to be an significant movement toward either approval of medical marijuana or decriminalization on a state level, I expect that legislators are taking a hard look at the Colorado experience. Are significant additional tax revenues are being produced? Is there any appreciable effect on crime? Are people like Michelle Malkin’s mother-in-law benefiting? Is the legal sale of marijuana having any impact on tourism? The answers to those questions will tell us whether states like Ohio, which tends to be a follower rather than an innovator, may change its marijuana policies.
Colorado is set to become the first state to regulate and tax the recreational use of marijuana. Don’t expect it to be the last.
The Colorado legislature has passed a series of bills dealing with marijuana. In the wake of a 2012 voter initiative that approved recreational use of marijuana by people over 21, the legislature has decreed how many marijuana plants people can grow for their personal use (no more than 6), how much marijuana visitors to Colorado can buy (a quarter ounce), and how marijuana offered for sale must be packaged (in child-proof containers that specify potency).
As far as taxes are concerned, Colorado ganja will be subject to a 10 percent sales tax and a 15 percent excise tax. In other states where the sale of “medical marijuana” is taxed, significant revenues have been obtained; in California, $100 million is raised annually from such taxes.
We can expect other states to follow Colorado’s lead, for entirely predictable reasons. States need cash, and that means they need things to tax. Through “medical marijuana” exceptions, the use of recreational drugs has become increasingly accepted by Americans — and that use is largely untaxed. With Colorado, and Washington, and other states taking the lead, what state legislator who’d like to have a bit more revenue to spread around to his pet programs can resist a marijuana tax? At all levels of government our politicians are addicted to taxes, and this is another way for them to get their fix.
This is one of those studies that draws awfully broad conclusions, and is a bit disturbing, besides. The researchers began assessing the study participants, a group from Dunedin, New Zealand, when they were children, before they started smoking, and then interviewed them regularly about their pot-smoking habits, and other activities, for more than 20 years. The researchers took the resulting data and sought to screen for other factors, including use of alcohol and other drugs, as well as education levels. They concluded that persistent marijuana smokers — defined as someone who smoked at least four times a week, year after year, into their 20s and 30s — experienced noticeable drops in IQ, with the amount of marijuana consumption correlating to the amount of IQ loss. The study found that persistent marijuana use over 20 years is associated with neuropsychological decline and that the drug may have neurotoxic effects in adolescents.
There’s no real surprise in these conclusions. Many of us know people who never moved past the heavy stoner lifestyle and ended up sapped of energy and ambition, not doing much of anything with their lives except listening to Dark Side of the Moon and complaining about their latest bad break. If you go to any college town, you’ll likely see some of them, scraping by somehow.
What’s disturbing about the study is that the scientists seem to have treated real people like lab rats, testing and interviewing and assessing them as they continued a habit that apparently was producing irrevocable mental decline. There’s no indication in the article linked above that researchers did anything to try to convince participants to stop their use — even in the case of adolescents. What are the ethical obligations of researchers under such circumstances? When should a scientist stop being a neutral observer and recorder of clinical facts, and start being a person who tries to help a kid avoid a permanent downward spiral?
The Netherlands, with its decriminalization of “soft drugs” like marijuana, has long attracted tourists who are interested in sampling illicit substances. Now Maastricht, a Dutch city on the border with Germany and Belgium, is trying to crack down — in part — on “drug tourism,” and the country as a whole is trying to decide how to address the issue.
The Dutch approach to drugs has led to the development of about 700 “coffee shops” nationwide. These establishments sell that sought-after combination of coffee and cannabis and are a typical destination for “drug tourists.” Now Maastricht has decided to ban certain tourists from the “coffee shops.” German and Belgian tourists can go in and partake of the wares; everyone else, not so much. Scanners will check passports and ID cards, police will conduct random checks, and anyone not holding a Dutch, Belgian, or German passport will be required to leave.
Proponents of Maastricht’s law say “drug tourism” is a threat to public order. Opponents of the law say it violates EU policies of equal treatment of citizens of member countries — and also hurts business and the city’s economy. Why turn away those hard-partying Americans, Brits, and Italians, they reason, if you are going to allow Germans and Belgians to come in, chug a cappuccino, and toke up?
The struggle between trying to regulate social conduct, and the prospect of tourist dollars and tax revenue, has caused many American cities and states to revisit their laws about gambling and liquor sales. The debate in the Netherlands about drug laws is the same debate in a different context. In America, the lure of tax revenue and increased tourism usually proves to be irresistible, particularly in bad economic times. How will the Netherlands come out on that debate?
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?