This post is in response to The Consequences of Legalizing It by Gregg Henriques

Note: The views expressed in this blog are solely the views of the blogger.

There is growing buzz about the possibility of U.S. wide marijuana legalization. I was dumbfounded when California did not fully legalize pot a few years ago, and I suspect that if California had done so, more than half the other states would have by now. Before I talk about why I think marijuana should be legalized, a quick disclaimer:

I have no interest in smoking marijuana. My father smoked a lot of pot, and he was allergic to it, and needless to say that combination did not work out well for him. I have a lot of friends who have smoked pot. Most it seemed to work well for even over many decades of use, only a few it did not seem to work out well for. I could say the same thing about coffee, motorcycles, and Dostoyevsky. Assuming the location is well ventilated, I don't mind being around people who are smoking marijuana, but because of my family history, I'm not interested myself.

As a further disclaimer, I'll state that I don't think I have anything fundamentally new to add to this discussion, but I hope some readers will get something out of my presentation. I'm not going to give a top 10 list, though I think those can be done well. Instead, I'm just going to explain how full legalization in California should have been the start of a rapid domino effect.

If California legalized pot in 2010, all other states would have considered it by now, and many would have already passed it. This is a simple matter of monetary and human economics. The monetary benefit of legalization does not come from taxes, though those are nice, nor does it come from spending less on law enforcement, because there is always more law enforcement to be done. The real benefit comes from releasing prisoners. Stopping the incarceration of non-violent "offenders" who were arrested for personal-use amounts of marijuana would have saved California an estimated $1 billion per year. Where does that estimate come from? It costs approximately $80,000 per year to keep a prisoner in jail. California has an estimated 44,500 drug offenders in prison, half of whom non-violent, "simple possession" cases. You can add to that all the money that would be saved by no-longer tracking people on parole following a personal-use arrest, or the former parolees back in jail because of a marijuana-positive urine test. To put this cost in perspective, just the financial side, the much maligned furloughs that California instituted to save money raised less than $1 billion a year.

Now add on top of that the tax revenue, which would be alright if marijuana was taxed at normal rates, and pretty big if it was taxed like tobacco. Then add on top of that the additional economy driven by turning those prisoners into working people, and the savings on other social programs for them and their families when there is additional income and family stability. This wouldn't have been enough to totally solve California's financial crisis of the time, but it would have helped tremendously, and other states facing financial hardship would not have been able to ignore the economic reality. If nothing else, imagine how many people you could help with an extra billion dollars, and then determine if that money is better spent incarcerating people who pose no threat.

Oh wait, and don't forget about the human cost itself! How does it help society to put those people behind bars? They aren't murders, or thieves. Who are we protecting by segregating people who do not pose a danger to the person or property of those around them? How does it help their children and families? Across the country we are talking about hundreds of thousands of people.

All this leads to a question, why didn't California legalize pot? The answer is complex, but a large part of the answer is that there is one group that does benefit from this: Private prisons. Yes, California has so many prisoners that they started contracting outside vendors to do something that, even in my pretty-extreme libertarian mind, is clearly the state’s job. The prison lobby pumped huge amounts of money into advertising to sway voters, and it worked. If there is no other criterion you use to judge morality, I recommend you be suspicious of those who profit when horrible things to people. Those who run private prisons benefit when people are made prisoners: Society benefits when people who deserve to be sent to prison are sent to prison, the private prison system benefits when anyone is sent to prison.

So, in sum, if California had legalized pot: It would have saved a huge amount in no-longer-needed spending. It would have generated significant amounts of revenue. It would have put tens of thousands of people back to work. It would have allowed significant law-enforcement and state-prison resources to redirect towards more important functions. It would have helped to weaken an inherently corrupt private enterprise. If all that had happened at the peak of the economic crash, the other states would have followed suit, and this discussion would be over by now.

(Image from

About the Author

Eric Charles, Ph.D.

Eric Charles, Ph.D., runs the research lab at CTRL, the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning, at American University.

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