The high price of reform: States eyeing legalized marijuana for tax revenue

jointMaybe the Ganja Gourmet should consider franchises in nearby Washington state. Lawmakers in the Evergreen State are considering legalizing and regulating marijuana. Two dozen other states are considering bills that will allow medical marijuana and make "small" amounts of the magic weed legal.

"In terms of state legislatures, this is far and away the most active year that we've ever seen," Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, which supports reforming marijuana laws, told the Associated Press.

Nadelmann said that while legalization efforts are not likely to get much traction in state capitals any time soon, the fact that there is such an increase of activity "is elevating the level of public discourse on this issue and legitimizing it."

"I would say that we are close to the tipping point," he said. "At this point they are still seen as symbolic bills to get the conversation going, but at least the conversation can be a serious one."

California, Massachusetts and New Hampshire are also deliberating on bills similar to that in Washington state.

President in favor
The Obama Administration has taken on health care reform and credit card reform. And it seems they might also be in favor of marijuana reform, since the guidelines on federal prosecution of medical marijuana have been loosened since President Obama took office.

But no matter how lenient the Feds are, or how many times Mary-Louise Parker is nominated for awards for her portrayal of a suburban mom turned marijuana dealer, there are many opposing legalizing the sale of the "Weeds".

The southern half of the country isn't necessarily embracing the notion of legalized pot. In fact, only Mississippi and North Carolina currently have decriminalized laws on the books.

Lighting the fire
The Washington state bill is sponsored by Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, a Seattle Democrat. Her bill would see marijuana being sold in the state's 160 state-run liquor stores, and customers, 21 and older, would pay a tax of 15% per gram. Most of that tax would be used to fund substance abuse prevention and treatment programs, which are currently on the state's budget chopping block. The measure could be a moneymaker for Washington, perhaps netting the state as much as alcohol does, more than $300 million a year.

"Our state is facing a huge financial deficit and deficits are projected for a few more years," Dickerson said to the AP, referring to the projected $2.6 billion hole lawmakers will need to fill next year. "We need to look at revenue and see what might be possible."

Some say the economy is to thank (or blame depending on your views) for lawmakers even considering legalizing a toke or two. The recession has lead to decreased revenue in the form of reduced tolls and sales tax. But state's crying poor-mouth isn't enough to convince some that marijuana is the magic bullet to fiscal solvency.

"We shouldn't look to illegal drugs as a means to bail out the government," says Washingtonian Mary Briggs, the mother of four and staunch opponent to Dickerson's bill. "Just like kids [teens and tweens] can get fake IDs for alcohol, they'll get it for pot. Then in 20 years lawmakers will be scratching their heads trying to figure out why the substance abuse rate among young people have skyrocketed."

Opponents also point to the notion that legalized pot could lead to driving under the influence of marijuana. While it's true that someone under the influence of marijuana can get behind the wheel, many worry legalizing pot will greatly increase those odds. In an interview with the AP, Ron Brooks, president of the National Narcotics Officers' Associations' Coalition, said that he feared that, if legalized, marijuana would contribute to more highway accidents and deaths, as well as a potential increase in health care costs for those who smoke it.

Sound off
What are your thoughts on legalized marijuana? Should medical marijuana be legalized? Do you think lawmakers should look to pot as a means to dig themselves out of debt?

Gina Roberts-Grey is a freelance journalist specializing in health, celebrity and consumer issues.
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