When Marijuana is Legal

BRISBANE – What will happen if Californians votes this November to legalize marijuana use by any adult over the age of 21 years? Let’s ignore for the moment the vexed constitutional issues that will be raised if a US state enacts legislation that conflicts with federal law. Let’s focus instead on what may happen if the law changes as the referendum proposes.

If we are to believe the referendum’s supporters, all Californians will be winners. The change will legitimize marijuana’s de facto legal status since passage of Proposition 215 in 1996. It will thus reduce state expenditure on enforcing a widely violated law; remove marijuana growing and selling from the black market; enable any adult who wishes to use marijuana to do so; and introduce a tax on legal marijuana sales that will fill state coffers with revenue that formerly went to illegal growers (so long as there is no large-scale tax evasion).

By contrast, opponents predict that the change will increase rates of marijuana use, and thus magnify the harm arising from that use. The adverse consequences of greatest concern include more marijuana-related road traffic accidents and deaths; more psychoses and other serious mental health problems among heavy users; and heavier marijuana use by young people, negatively affecting their life chances. These effects, they argue, will more than offset any gains from tax revenue and savings from law enforcement.

It is difficult to know who is right, because no other country has adopted this policy. The Netherlands, which is popularly believed to have legalized cannabis use along these lines, has in fact tolerated only small-scale retail sales of marijuana in a limited number of coffee shops in its larger cities. Marijuana cultivation remains illegal and coffee shop sales are regulated – more strictly in recent years in response to complaints from neighboring countries about “drug tourism.”