Innovative ways to stimulate the economy: Legalize marijuana for cost savings, tax revenue

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As anyone who's ever attended an event hosted by NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) will attest, marijuana advocates are sometimes a bit excessive in their defense of cannabis sativa.

Promoting it as a solution for all problems, from soil and water conservation to gas prices, they occasionally give the impression that the weed has almost messianic properties, and its decriminalization is the only thing standing in the way of a perfect utopian world.

While this perspective is obviously unrealistic, there is a strong economic argument to be made in favor of marijuana legalization. Although many economists have explored the effect of legalization, the most compelling is probably Dr. Jeffrey Miron, a visiting professor of Economics at Harvard University. In 2005, he authored a paper in which he argued that marijuana legalization would effectively generate more than $10 billion per year. Miron's report has since been endorsed by scores of prominent economists.

Dr. Miron estimated that every year the United States spends approximately $7.7 billion to enforce marijuana laws. A repeal of these laws would immediately save state and local governments $5.3 billion and would save the federal government a further $2.4 billion.

Enforcement expenditures, while impressive, are merely the beginning. If marijuana were taxed at the same rate as other consumer goods, Miron estimates that it would generate approximately $2.4 billion per year. If it were taxed at the same level as tobacco or alcohol, the revenues would jump to $6.2 billion per year.

On a secondary level, marijuana legalization would probably result in a significant spike in agricultural, manufacturing, and white-collar jobs, as farming, processing, and marketing the drug would require new hirings in all three areas. Moreover, regulation of the marijuana industry would seem likely to at least partially offset the employment drop-off caused by the cut in marijuana-related crimes. If farms could be shifted from tobacco production to cannabis production, it could even take a bite out of the significant federal agricultural subsidies that currently drain the federal treasury.

It is also worth noting that marijuana legalization could, conceivably, result in a significant drop in prescription drug expenditures. One drug, Marinol, is directly distilled from the plant, and scientists have found that marijuana is helpful in treating an almost endless list of illnesses, including epilepsy, migraine, and numerous mood disorders. If it were offered as a low-cost alternative to prescription drugs, it might assist in the development of a workable universal health care plan.

Perhaps the strongest traditional critique of marijuana lies in the commonly-held belief that it transforms hard-working, ambitious young people into lazy slackers. However, it is worth noting that America's past three presidents all admitted (with varying degrees of openness) to recreational marijuana usage.

For that matter, America's most highly-decorated Olympian was recently photographed partaking of the demon weed. Taken as a pair, Michael Phelps and Barack Obama would seem to constitute a stunning rebuttal to the argument that marijuana causes sloth. More to the point, if some of the country's most prominent figures have admitted to smoking marijuana, one must wonder how much of a stigma the drug still retains.

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