Lessons for Philly, Piled a Mile High
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The satirical news blog, the Daily Currant, ran a piece back in January with the headline, “Marijuana Overdoses Kill 37 in Colorado On First Day of Legalization.” The article painted a picture of a city in chaos, with medical facilities overloaded with hapless pot abusers. ,As I’ve come to sadly expect, a number of readers didn’t realize the site was satirical, leading to – on my Facebook feed anyway – the usual hand-wringing paired with smug I-told-you-so’s.
Needless to say, legalizing recreational drug use did not bring about the fall of civilization in Colorado. I visited the Mile High City in March – that’s me in Denver above – and things seemed as business as usual as ever. Reefer madness had not overcome the population. As far as I could tell, the worst impact was the irresistible pull of puns on the mile “high” city. Few seemed immune to this groan-inducing outbreak.
Three months on, life continues in Denver pretty much the same as before. Some numbers have come out indicating what has really happened in the wake of the legalization, regulation, and taxing of marijuana for recreational use. The Denver Post recently published a piece indicating that, for one thing, marijuana sales tax revenues were $7.3 million in the first three months following legalization.
Keeping tabs on what happens in Colorado is potentially important for Pennsylvania. The current governor recently reversed his position on one aspect of marijuana legalization, and his Democratic opponent in the upcoming election has a similarly striking moderate position on this issue. Thus far, it looks like the farthest they are likely to go is decriminalization – making possession the sort of offense that brings about a ticket, like a parking violation – rather than supporting something along the lines of Colorado’s legalization. Given the way that public opinion is going, and the way that politics is moving in the city and the state, we should be keeping tabs on other states’ experiments with policy changes. Eventually, policy will catch up with public opinion, which, so far, has outpaced politicians’ positions.
Of course, for many, the question of economics is not the only one when it comes to drugs. There are dozens of arguments one might marshal in favor of legalization. Here in Philadelphia, the birthplace of liberty, many of us feel the strongest argument is simply that the state shouldn’t prevent people from doing more or less as they please, as long as they are not harming others. There’s also the foreign policy angle: As legalization spreads, the market for illegal sales diminishes and prices fall. Some estimates put the wholesale price of marijuana as being cut down to as little as a quarter of its previous prices. International drug cartels lose revenue when their previously lucrative illegal market in legalized and normalized, in the same way that the massive margins on alcohol vanished in the wake of the repeal of Prohibition, leading to a concurrent reduction in violence surrounding alcohol. Surely, from both a domestic and foreign policy standpoint, the weakening of the incentives in the drug trade would seem to be an excellent outcome.
Back in Colorado, the financial case certainly seems to be compelling. According to one estimate, Pennsylvania is among the eight highest-spending states in enforcing the laws surrounding marijuana, to the tune of a little over $1 billion per year. In times such as the present, with budgets squeezed, it makes sense to look for low hanging fruit on both sides of the budget equation. Under legalization regimes, law enforcement resources can be redirected to more productive ends. On the revenue side, as in Colorado, Pennsylvania could consider using tax revenues to shore up school budgets, which some have noticed is a bit of a small, little issue here in Philadelphia.
Variation in policies across the United States is an incredibly valuable asset – states are “laboratories of democracy” as Justice Brandeis put it. Because policy changes often bring about unintended consequences, there are advantages to being able to observe other states’ policy initiatives, seeing what works, what doesn’t, and what might need just a little tweaking. Holding aside whatever one’s views are on the recent healthcare shakeup, one side effect of the process has been the ability to observe how approaches in different states have worked. Of course states differ in certain respects, making some policies more difficult to transplant than others. In the context of legalization of marijuana, the west coast tends to be more permissive, as a matter of public opinion. However, public opinion is moving rapidly everywhere, and there is an air of inevitability that echoes the slow but steady march of progress we’re currently observing in the domain of gay rights, especially marriage.
Pennsylvanians – and Philadelphians – should be keeping a close eye on all the downstream effects of legalization in Colorado and Washington, as well as the other states, such as Alaska, making similar moves. Taxes on legal pot sales won’t by themselves heal the wounds of the Philadelphia school system, but making the sale and use of marijuana an asset rather than a liability on the city’s books seems like a step in the right direction.
Robert Kurzban is a Professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Pennsylvania.