William F. Buckley, that late, great icon of conservatism, had a sister who had cancer. During her treatment, she persuaded her brother to find and acquire marijuana for her to counteract the effects of chemotherapy. The experience, along with extensive research, led Buckley to become one of the more outspoken advocates of the legalization, regulation and taxation of illegal drugs. Buckley didn’t just write for his own magazine, The National Review, but also syndicated his columns, which is how the conservative Tampa Tribune ended up carrying these pro-legalization columns, where I read them.
The columns were printed in the early 1990s, as the United States was dealing with the deficits and debt created by the Reagan and Bush41 administrations and a recession, and in the early days of the Clinton administration. Buckley made some very important points in his columns, but to put part of what he wrote in context, one needed to have seen the original 1989 BBC production Traffik. In the first episode, a British government official played by Bill Paterson was told by a Pakistani official that Pakistan would stop growing poppies when the British paid more for agricultural products than for heroin.
Buckley did the numbers and they were impressive. He first advocated the legalization of marijuana, and not just for medicinal purposes. He calculated the cost to the American tax payer of incarcerating people for pot. Later, he took the argument to its full extent. How much did it cost for America to maintain the DEA and Border Patrol? How much money was spent on jails? How much money was being spent in foreign countries to assist them in fighting our drug war? How much money would the government collect in taxes, the way it gets revenue from tobacco and alcohol? By Buckley’s calculations, we could not only wipe out the deficit, we could make a major dent in the national debt.
Then Buckley wrote about the difference between what happened when prohibition was repealed and what the experts said we could expect if drugs were decriminalized. As one person had put it at the time, repealing prohibition set the United States on a sixty-year bender. But the war on drugs had included extensive education programs that had indoctrinated enough Americans into the real effects of drug use, and there was very little chance that those who had never been involved in the drug culture would be after decriminalization. We also had laws in place concerning use of drug while driving an in the workplace that would not be effected if drugs were decriminalized. Those same laws work for alcohol.
In spite of Buckley’s iconic stature in the conservative world, his ideas were just to radical and leftist to gain traction. That was then. Things have dramatically changed in some regards in the past two decades.
During the recent Western Hemisphere summit, President Obama was doing a fair imitation of Bill Paterson’s British official. The entirety of the Latin American world told him it was time for the United States to relieve them of the crushing burden of fighting our drug war. Columbia has been scarred for decades, Mexico is a battlefield, and all is the fault of American drug use. When prohibition was repealed, bootleggers and smugglers became businessmen, or they moved into other areas of crime. Our allies in the war on drugs are fed up with the cost in money, lives and economic development.
Our economy is in far worse shape than it was in 1992. Our national debt has risen from around 45% of GDP in 1992 to around 99% today, and our deficits are record-breaking. All of Buckley’s economic arguments make even more sense now than they did twenty years ago. We are wasting the revenues we could be gathering from a multi-billion dollar industry.
Finally, we have an excellent example of how the system would work. The state of Colorado has been very forward in their handling of medical marijuana dispensaries, unlike the other 15 states that haven’t figured out what to do about legalizing something that the federal government still says is illegal.
Colorado has inspectors for their pot growers and dispensaries, just like the inspectors used for farms, liquor stores and alcohol manufacturers. They assure that those engaged in the industry are meeting all the regulations that the state came up with for cultivation, harvesting, processing, converting marijuana into various forms for consumption from looseleaf to candy. They are currently debating legalizing marijuana for recreational use and that would entail an expansion of the regulatory system.
Colorado’s Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division is headed by the former director of liquor enforcement, nice piece of use of existing expertise there. Laura Harris has around 20 employees in the division. They job is to prevent the medical marijuana from leaking onto the black market. They are developing a system of tags and scanners to track each pot plant from greenhouse to user. The voters of Colorado approved medical marijuana in 2000, but it was 2009 before the network of dispensaries was set up. There are 600 or so dispensaries in Colorado which serve 80,000 patients. The dispensaries generate $5 million a year in sales tax, just straight sales tax. Colorado is not taking advantage of the potential for special taxes on marijuana such as the taxes on tobacco and alcohol.
A little Buckley mathematics…..80,000 pot users in Colorado generated $5 million in revenue. Therefore, 18 million users nationally could generate $1.125 trillion in a sales tax equal to Colorado’s. That is a small portion of the amount of revenue that could be generated by legalized drugs and the savings that we could find by ending the failed war on drugs.
The problem today is the same one Buckley faced….it’s all too logical and sensible.