I Am Not Stoned: Sobering Realities For Taxpayers On The Road To Legalizing Marijuana

Trying to defy the feds over pot unleashes legal, administrative, and law enforcement chaos – and almost nobody is trying to safeguard the taxpayer in the midst of it all.

Pot fans got what they wanted in Colorado: they finally convinced voters there to support the legalization of “recreational marijuana.” It’s seen as a huge victory for those who support the powers of the individual states, and a great example of “federalism” in action. But who is considering the burden of all of this on the American taxpayer?

Before I go further, let me be clear: I have never in my entire life consumed marijuana. When I was a kid I was out of step with my peers on this, but I’ve just never been interested in “trying it,” and that’s still true today.

Secondly, I’m quite open to the idea that, as a substance, “cannabis” has value. The “hemp” fibers of the plant can clearly serve a variety of industrial purposes – people have been using it to make rope for years, and I own a wallet made from hemp (and my wallet “works” just fine).

There also may be medicinal values in the substance of “marijuana.”  But when an individual state simply says “forget the feds, we’re legalizing it,” the state sets in motion a pattern of legal, administrative, and law enforcement chaos-and the already beaten-down American taxpayer ends up saddled with even more expenses and debts.

Consider how California began its “pot journey.” Voters there passed the “Compassionate Use Act of 1996” (commonly known as “Proposition 215”), a ballot proposition that was to allow marijuana consumption “for medicinal purposes” only.  And the whole idea was sold to voters under the guise of “compassion”- you wouldn’t want somebody to suffer without their medicine, now would you?

When California voters said “yes” to medical marijuana, the next question from the government was “how do we give it to them?”  It’s still illegal at the federal level, so it’s not like Californians could simply stock pot at the pharmacy, where all the legal medicines are sold. So California had to put together its own means of growing, harvesting, selling, and distributing pot.

This required the California legislators to spend taxpayer money legislating a new “Medical Marijuana Program.” After years of tinkering with legislative attempts, and making amendments, and facing threats of vetoes by former Republican Governor Pete Wilson back in the late 90’s, the California legislature finally found a friend in Democrat Governor Gray Davis, and in 2003 the state passed and began implementing the California “Medical Marijuana Program Act.”  The state began hiring more government employees to administrate the new pot infrastructure program, and then began mandating to individual counties and cities that they acquiesce –and all of this was done at taxpayer expense.

Then, two politically “conservative” regions of California – San Bernardino County and San Diego County-refused to implement the new pot program.  So the state government sued the two counties, and the counties put their Attorneys to work to defend them against the state. And this ended in a decision at the California State Supreme Court that determined that the counties had to do what the state told them to do with the pot shops – and all of this cost taxpayers lots of money.

By this time, cities and counties all over California began realizing that they had no choice – they had to allow for “medical pot shops.” So the elected lawmakers in the city and county governments began asking their city and county Attorneys “how do we establish zoning laws for the pot shops? Should pot shops be allowed near schools or shopping malls? Should we try to keep them away from kids? If we restrict the hours of operation for the pot shops, will we still be in compliance with the state mandates?” This consumed lots of “man hours,” required lots of professional expertise and input – and it was all done at taxpayer expense.

California’s legal, administrative, and law enforcement chaos hasn’t been confined by its borders- there have been plenty of confrontations with federal authorities along the way as well. With “medical pot” being the law of the land in California, law enforcement agencies and courts are put in a bind:  they can enforce and uphold federal law on pot, or they can enforce and uphold state law on pot, but they can’t do both because the state and federal law is on conflict.
During the Clinton presidency, the federal government was mostly “hands off” with California’s medical marijuana efforts. As the program began to unfold, the Bush Administration was more inclined towards intervention. 
The Obama Administration began on a note of tolerance with medical marijuana in California, but within a couple of years Attorney General Eric Holder was issuing warnings about the issue being inadequately regulated, and the various U.S. Attorney’s offices in California have  initiated a variety of “probes” and “investigations” – all of which have cost lots of taxpayer dollars.

Pot lovers are passionate about their drug of choice, and will say just about anything to try and legitimize it. The argument starts over “medicinal pot,” but the end goal around the country is what Colorado got: legalized recreational pot. “Let’s treat it just like alcohol,” the reasoning goes, “legalize it, then regulate it, then tax it.”

But it’s not “just like alcohol,” at the individual state level. Pot is still highly illegal under federal law, and multiple layers of federal bureaucracies and multiple federal agencies with lots of career governmental employees have a vested interest in keeping it illegal.

So good luck, Colorado. But beware in the other 49:  trying to defy the feds over pot unleashes legal, administrative, and law enforcement chaos – and almost nobody is trying to safeguard the taxpayer in the midst of it all.

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2 comments to I Am Not Stoned: Sobering Realities For Taxpayers On The Road To Legalizing Marijuana

  • Patrick Mulligan

    Washington state where I live also legalized pot (so better make that: “beware in the other 48”), and I can’t speak to the specifics of the Colorado law, but the law as it was written here addresses a lot of the complications you described in this piece. The recently deprecated state liquor control board (we recently passed a law privatizing our state-run liquor stores) will take on the state level regulatory tasks as well as growing and distribution (no private sales are permitted under the law), blood content levels for THC have been established for DUI conviction, municipalities are forbidden from passing regulations on the drug that supersede or go beyond the scope of the state law, and possession thresholds have been established.

    Of course that still leaves the inevitable legal challenges from federal supremacy, which, in my opinion, is going to set up arguably the most interesting and decisive showdown on the 10th amendment and states’ rights since reconstruction. Remember that it took a constitutional amendment to ban liquor. Federal control of marijuana has only been upheld on commerce clause grounds, and on the same shaky reasoning that was established in Wickard v Filburn. That alone is worth the price of admission in my opinion.

    I say this as a person who voted in favor of legalization in my state who, like the author, has also never touched marijuana or any other recreational drugs and has no interest in doing so. But this is an important and precedent setting moment that I would think would hold much more interest than the petty tax expenditures for any states’ rights advocate or conservative/libertarian political/legal junkie (no pun intended).

  • andrewmalone14

    I must say that if your objection to pot legalization (or in general the fight of state vs federal) is that it might cause a headache for administrators and eat up taxpayer money, I think you’ve completely missed the point. The point is that there are certain issues that the federal government has clearly overstepped its bounds on, and fighting against that is a worthy endeavor in most all cases.
    Surely as a conservative you could find several instances where you think it’d be worth a long and expensive legal fight to protect states from intrusive federal laws?

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