It may be an issue whose time has come. And, if that is the case, there may be no more appropriate place for it than California.
Voters in that state will decide in November whether to legalize and regulate marijuana use, an issue that has come before voters in other states in other election years but has always failed.
In 2010, however, there is an unusual confluence of issues, like two mighty rivers that meet and create an even greater force, that might make this vote different from the rest. Even if the eventual result is the same, the margin may be closer than it has ever been — and it may be a sign that the tide is turning.
First, there is the recession, which has produced — thus far — a 13.2% unemployment rate in California and a shortfall of the state budget that has forced Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to call for "draconian" spending cuts while warning that there is surely more/worse to come.
The folks in Washington seem to have lost sight of the fact (assuming — and that is a huge assumption — that they ever fully realized it in the first place) that this recession — and the unemployment it has spawned — is different from the others with which they have dealt. And they appear determined to fight it the same way they initially chose to fight Saddam Hussein and the Iraqis — on the cheap.
On the cheap didn't work in Iraq, and it won't work against the recession.
Policy analyst Samuel Sherraden, in an article for CNN.com, says the new jobs bill, in which the president and the members of his party seem to place so much faith, is doomed to fail because it focuses on inadequate tax credits instead of promoting infrastructure.
Of course, it is understandable — to a point — why infrastructure is not emphasized. Infrastructure costs money, lots of money, but revenue is down because fewer people are working and paying taxes — so there isn't as much money available as there once was.
"The House of Representatives passed a relatively strong bill in December, which included $48 billion in infrastructure spending," Sherraden writes. "Now the House and the Senate have adopted a bill that consists primarily of a payroll tax deduction for employers who make new hires and keep them on for a year. The original House jobs bill was $154 billion. The new bill is one–tenth the size."
I'm not an economist, but I don't think you have to be to see that Sherraden is right. The money simply isn't there, and the jobs bill doesn't provide the sources for the kind of revenue that is needed to repair the infrastructure and put millions of unemployed Americans back to work.
Legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana has the potential to produce the kind of revenue — I've heard it estimated that legalizing marijuana in California alone can produce $1 billion annually in tax revenue for the state — that will address the infrastructure issue. And it will keep doing so beyond 2010, unlike the tax credits the Democrats have proposed.
As Sherraden observes, "It is unwise to pass a temporary hiring incentive that will expire during a year when the unemployment rate is forecast by the Congressional Budget Office to average 9.5 percent."
Yet, in addition to providing the kind of revenue that could be used to make meaningful improvements in the nation's infrastructure, legalizing marijuana could create, virtually overnight, the demand for all kinds of jobs. Those people in occupations that would be adversely affected by legalizing marijuana — for example, lab workers who perform drug tests and law enforcement officials who have been waging a losing war against marijuana for decades — would simply be reassigned to more productive pursuits. It is doubtful that their jobs would be eliminated, only the functions of the jobs. If marijuana is legalized, attention can shift to testing for the use of demonstrably deadly drugs and the enforcement of laws against violent behavior.
Then there is health care reform, an issue that has dominated the thinking of Barack Obama (who seems to have devoted more attention to his NCAA Tournament predictions in the last couple of years than he has to unemployment) and the Democrats in Congress for more than a year. With the passage of health care reform legislation, the thoughts of many have turned to the subject of easing the pain of those afflicted with AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, etc. And that is where the issue of medical marijuana comes in.
Marijuana has been proven — repeatedly — to be effective at fighting the nausea that is a by–product of some treatments (most notably, chemotherapy). It has also been shown to stimulate appetite, which is helpful for those whose medical treatments have robbed them of the desire for food. For glaucoma patients, it eases intraocular pressure that robs people of their vision.
However, fear mongers continue to spread inaccuracies (I prefer that word to lies even though this is one of those times when the latter is more appropriate) about marijuana. I can only assume that, because medical science has established a connection between tobacco consumption and life–threatening illnesses like lung cancer, opponents of legalization have jumped to the conclusion that smoking anything will cause lung cancer, too. I am aware of no medical studies that have shown that marijuana causes cancer. In fact, the Journal of Clinical Investigation, which makes its research articles from the last 86 years freely available online, has demonstrated precisely the opposite. JCI's research shows that marijuana kills cancer cells, which is one more therapeutic benefit.
Of course, it is unlikely that most of the people who consume marijuana do so as a preventive measure — although there may be some who smoke it because they are concerned about the prevalence of cancer in their families.
But it is ironic, I believe, that this issue comes up now — not just because of the passage of health care reform but because it was one year ago that, during his celebrated online town hall meeting, Obama ridiculed the 3½ million people who submitted questions about the legalization of marijuana.
This comes at a time when officials have observed a reversal in marijuana use among the young. For many years, propaganda campaigns succeeded, to an extent, in discouraging marijuana consumption, but recent surveys have noted a shift in the behavior of the young.
Such a shift has been increasingly hard to ignore — or write off as the behavior of those who are unmotivated and untalented. Just a few days ago, Don Banks reported for SI.com that folks in the NFL "are concerned about the increased number of prospects who have a history of marijuana use in their background."
Banks' article goes on to observe that eliminating players — given the success that some marijuana users have had in the NFL in recent years — because they failed drug tests doesn't make sense if the NFL's personnel people are interested in winning — and keeping their own jobs. Some, no doubt, cling to the long–disproved allegations that have been used to justify keeping marijuana illegal — that it causes death, that it leads to madness and violent criminal behavior, that it serves as a "gateway" to other drugs.
Well, Pete Guither debunks a lot of the myths. As he clearly demonstrates, prohibition was on the wrong side of history in the 1930s.
And it's on the wrong side now.