Does Marijuana Legalization Herald A Golden Age Or A Dystopia?
California’s marijuana legalization is an incredible step towards fixing a lot of problems in the United States, specifically both reducing incarceration of nonviolent offenders and reducing violent crime within the US and abroad. It seems hopeful, with all but four states having legalized some form of marijuana, at least cannabidiol oil. Unfortunately, before these societal ills get better, they will likely get worse.
Commentators are speculating that California will draw a lot of tax revenue from the sale and taxation of marijuana. San Diego predicts that it will likely receive $5.5 million in the first year alone, increasing to $13.7 million by 2023 (the estimate only includes marijuana sales, not taxes involved in cultivation, etc.). Though well below initial estimates of $22-35 million, that is still a boon, and statewide, that will be enticing to lawmakers looking to generate revenue for their cities and states. Once cannabis lobbying ramps up, we can be sure that legalization will blow up across the country. Newsweek and USA Today have predicted fifteen states to legalize next, while Salon is more conservative with three predictions. According to CNBC, the tax “reform” the GOP passed this year will be an enticement to raise revenue in new ways. Even Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks weighed in optimistically on marijuana legalization.
As the old saying goes, money talks and the rest walks. Attorney General Jeff Sessions may believe “Good people don’t smoke marijuana,” but there is a lot of money in weed. However, believing the story to be over fails to account for two aspects of US politics.
First, despite the rhetoric, red states don’t care about revenues. The GOP has proven it in a way that even mainstream pundits can’t ignore with the tax bill. Ezra Klein declared it “pure fraud,” and claimed the Republicans are “proving themselves, nihilists.” Klein observed in 2012 that Paul Ryan’s budget cuts were “not really thought through.” It must be exhausting to continually relearn the same shocking lesson.
“Fiscally responsible” red states are dependent on federal taxes. My own South Carolina brings in $7.87 per $1 its citizens pay in federal taxes, according to Wallethub. The top ten “givers,” states that provide more federal revenue than they take, are predictably blue states, with the exception of Kansas. The top ten “takers,” who bring in more revenue from the federal government than they provide, are red, with the exception of New Mexico (formerly governed by Libertarian presidential candidate, Gary Johnson) and Maine. “Fiscal responsibility” is not a priority of the “same old GOP,” no matter how many times they invoke the mythos of Saint Reagan while ignoring the reality of President Reagan, who Vice President Dick Cheney said, “proved deficits don’t matter,” according to Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill.
The media pretends to be shocked every time the GOP shows its apathy regarding deficits. Cries that we can’t afford “nice things” like social security, Medicare or free college tuition always come up while Congress has no problem approving $80 billion in extra funding to the military budget, bloating it to $700 billion for the year. GOP deficit hypocrisy and war-hawking has turned the US military into a cash cow for corporate interests hell-bent on burning taxpayer money (it only cost $50k to discover that African elephants cannot detect explosives. No word on Asian elephants, hippopotamuses, or other large mammals) as well as the largest and least efficient jobs program in the country, if not human history. The GOP, and also a large number of Democrats, have cynically used the lives and health of troops to justify exploding the deficit for the sake of donor profits while social programs that could create jobs as well as repair our crumbling infrastructure, educate the public and bolster our healthcare system are defunded or even scrapped because we are “broke,” even while we have wrought havoc in the Middle East since 2001 at a $4.79 trillion price tag.
The second reason not to load up on bongs and snack food is donor politics. Princeton’s 2014 study measured the effect of public opinion versus donor opinion on 20 years of public policy. The conclusion was that donors got what they wanted and public opinion had absolutely zero impact on policy decisions. While there is a “budding” (haha) lobbying effort representing the California Cannabis Industry Association, they are fighting an uphill battle against police and prison lobbies.
“Roughly half” the money raised for anti-legalization efforts in California came from these groups worried about their funding. The War on Drugs provides police departments with a sizeable portion of their budget, as well as civil asset forfeiture. This is where law enforcement may seize any property they believe involved in a crime (drugs require transportation and cash transactions, meaning that anyone suspected of a drug violation can look forward to losing any cash on hand, their vehicle and anything else they might stuff with illicit substance). Prison unions have fought for measures that will increase the prison population, from funding the notorious “three strikes” policy in 1994 to opposing diversion programs like Proposition 5 that would keep non-violent drug offenders out of cells and in treatment. While California Corrections Supervisors’ Association claims that their members are worried about the effect that “full-blown legalization” would have on society, citing their children as a basis for their fears, the fact is that one in five inmates are in prison for drug offenses. It is more likely that a lobbying group bases its concern on the economic effect of depriving their industry of a significant source of labor than whether their kids will be exposed to Reefer Madness.
Police departments have become a dumping ground for the Pentagon’s 1033 program, which authorizes the Secretary of Defense to donate military-grade weaponry to state and local police forces. Richland County, South Carolina has its own tracked armored vehicle and military transport planes (for reasons?) that no one is trained to operate, under this program. Police lobbying groups have pushed hard to keep the flow of military equipment, which enriches the manufacturers and pours weapons of war onto our streets.
Rather than protect police, militarization escalates violence in confrontations with the public. In several studies, it was shown that the presence of guns increases the likelihood that others will react aggressively, dubbed “weapons effect.” Thus when police, who are often from outside of communities like Ferguson, MO, arrive in combat gear, the public naturally behaves as though an occupying force has arrived. When SWAT gave way to local Highway Patrol, the result was a much friendlier reception for law enforcement. However, the profits for weapons manufacturers are not in hugs, but rubber bullets and tear gas. There is a vested interest in destabilizing the relationship between police and the community.
The use of military-style policing has risen since the 1980s when SWAT was deployed about three thousand times a year. By 2005, that had increased to 45,000 times a year. In 2015, it was more than 50,000. Not surprisingly, the use of SWAT has overwhelmingly been to prosecute drug raids, often without warrants, often against communities of color, and often with no results to show for it. Funding our political campaigns with money gleaned from special interests has reached the logical conclusion in which human life becomes a commodity to be traded by merchants of death, and countries are no longer sovereign nations but markets to be activated through destruction.
Legalization would save the lives of citizens and police in no-knock raids. It would fill our public coffers with taxed income, and create a nation-wide industry, creating new jobs in retail, shipping, farming and other related fields. Most widely, it would save billions on incarceration, not to mention it would prevent destroying the lives of people arrested for a harmless activity, causing them to lose jobs, splitting families and being forced to the fringes of society where they have to resort to ever more desperate means to make ends meet. While it is likely that some states will follow Massachusetts, Maine, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Nevada and now California towards ending the ridiculous prohibition of marijuana, there are still powerful forces on the side of repression.
Major General Smedley Butler wrote about how monied interests create war for profit. “The normal profits of a business concern in the United States are six, eight, ten, and sometimes twelve percent. But war-time profits — ah! that is another matter — twenty, sixty, one hundred, three hundred, and even eighteen hundred percent — the sky is the limit.” The War on Drugs and the War on Terror have plunged the nation into a shadow civil war, where citizens are treated as occupied enemies, county sheriffs receive and trade military arms, and as usual, the war machine runs on profits, greased by the blood and rights of the citizens.
Optimists may see profit from marijuana business and taxation as a beacon of hope that we may see some kind of humanistic dawn in our culture. But why would industry settle for “normal profits” when they can indulge in “war-time profits?” There are areas of the country that are more primed for legalization, and hopefully, their example will carry us forward. But the indifference to budgetary solvency and human suffering shown by a large segment of policymakers and the population, along with the deification of soldiers, police and violent authority, may turn this into an opportunity to amplify the US police state. Checkpoints on the borders of “green states” may become harvesting grounds for prison labor and civil asset forfeiture. Movement between states could become dangerous, and eventually discouraged. Jurisdiction battles may create divisions between states, with federal law enforcement acting as a bounty hunter for “prohibition states.”
Perhaps this outcome is hyperbolic. Maybe it will all go as the optimists predict and we can all get baked in celebration. Yet, the fact that so much profit rides on the maintenance of oppressive systems and the plunder of local communities makes the dawn seem far off indeed.