State budget crisis - time to kick the potheads out of prison?

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I've been using my trial membership in Netflix to watch the Showtime seriesWeed, about a suburban housewife who starts dealing pot to keep her household afloat. As the economy tanks, this has caused me to wonder if changing our approach to marijuana could free up enough money to help offset our state budget shortfalls.

A study done in June of 2005 by Jeffrey Miron, a Visiting Professor of Economics at Harvard, investigated just this question. He concluded that the annual cost of enforcing current weed prohibition was around $7.7 billion, split about 2/3 to the states and 1/3 to the federal government. (The Office of National Drug Control Policy does not agree with Miron's conclusions.)

Miron further concluded that, if the drug were legalized, it could yield an annual tax revenue of $2.4 billion if the tax matched prevailing sales taxes, and $6.2 billion if it were taxed at the rate of alcohol or tobacco. I suspect that many farmers would also appreciate having another cash crop to bolster their income.

Adding the two figures together, Miron conjectures legalization could improve our nation's balance sheet by $14 billion annually.

Of course, arguments about the wisdom of legalization range far beyond dollars and sense. Some claim it is a gateway drug, which could be true, since users are forced to obtain their weed from the same drug underground that deals more addictive substances. Certainly, many narcotics users began by smoking marijuana-- but I'll bet 100% of them abused alcohol and tobacco even earlier. So why don't we prohibit them as gateway drugs?

With states in crisis, I'd rather let a pothead walk free than deny an elderly woman money to keep her furnace running through the winter. $14 billion could go a long way toward keeping our clinics open, our schools funded and our elderly fed and housed. And I'm not just blowing smoke.

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