Give Jason Metsa credit for starting a debate that most legislators would rather not touch— legalization of marijuana for personal use in Minnesota. Metsa, a Virginia DFLer, is proposing to put the issue before the voters in 2018. Given the trend seen in most states, if left to voters, it would likely be approved.
Don’t look for the question to be on the ballot next year, however, in part because the Republicans who now control the Legislature don’t want anything on the ballot that might spur turnout among young people in next year’s mid-term election.
In fairness, though, Gov. Mark Dayton hasn’t expressed support for the idea either. While Minnesota is often ahead of the pack when it comes to sensible legal and health reforms, that hasn’t been the case with marijuana. The state was late to legalize medical use of marijuana and its law is one of the strictest in the country, which has stymied access for many of those who could actually benefit from marijuana use.
And that’s unfortunate, because there is substantial evidence to suggest that cannabis may be one of the most effective plants known for treating a wide range of medical conditions, from cancer, to depression, to chronic pain. While the hemp plant is best known for the existence of the chemical tetrahydrocannabinal, or THC, it contains dozens of different cannibinoid compounds, many of which we are now learning have a wide range of very therapeutic properties in humans. And only THC is known to provide the euphoria, or “high” associated with marijuana.
Unfortunately, the current legal status of marijuana has precluded the greater medical use and testing that should have been ongoing with marijuana for decades. It is astonishing, at a time when America faces an unprecedented epidemic of abuse of far harsher opioid-based pain medications, that the medical profession is not more out front in advocating the greater use of cannibinoid alternatives, which have minimal side effects and are not significantly addictive.
Unfortunately, marijuana has, for decades, been subject to a concerted campaign of vilification by politicians, the law enforcement community, the pharmaceutical industry, and the corrections-industrial complex, based on misinformation, racially charged fear-mongering, and the profit motive.
But Americans are increasingly informed about the dubious history behind marijuana criminalization, and about the costs and benefits of ending the failed and costly prohibition on a plant that, for centuries, was widely used in America and elsewhere with little downside.
We can now predict the effects of full marijuana legalization because seven states and the District of Columbia have already enacted such laws, and civilization marches on, with significant financial benefits for the states involved. In Washington state, with a population just slightly larger than Minnesota, the sale of marijuana for personal use generates $20 million a month in revenue to the state. That’s nearly a quarter billion dollars a year in new revenue to the state’s coffers.
At the same time, these states and their local units of government no longer spend tax dollars arresting, prosecuting, and jailing marijuana users. And these states are no longer inflicting the serious social and economic suffering that marijuana-related convictions can impose on their citizens.
Marijuana growers and sellers now employ thousands of workers in these states, out in the open, generating additional payroll and income taxes that were never paid in the past when those in the industry worked illegally.
Indeed, those dollars used to accrue mostly to the profits of drug gangs. Now, those dollars accrue to the benefit of public schools, roads, environmental protection, and the rest of state government. Metsa, in beginning a sensible conversation, is suggesting that the latter just might be preferable as public policy. He’s right.
Are there downsides? Of course, just as there are with the use of alcohol, tobacco, and many other legal pharmaceuticals, some of which are far more dangerous than marijuana. States that legalize marijuana should direct some of their financial windfall towards more educational efforts and strong enforcement of DUI laws. We know that such efforts can drive down misuse of such substances. Just look at how public campaigns have reduced cigarette use and drunk driving.
With years of experience in places like Colorado, we’ve seen that the dire predictions of legalization opponents have largely failed to materialize. Traffic fatalities in Colorado, for example, have actually dropped since legalization in 2010. Predictions of increased violent crime and drug addiction haven’t panned out either. Even property crimes, like burglaries, are down in places like Denver since legalization.
Are Coloradans smoking more pot? According to surveys, the answer is yes, as one would expect when the prohibition on any activity is lifted. The use of alcohol rose after the lifting of prohibition in 1933, but that hasn’t prompted a push to reinstate the ban on alcohol. We live in a free society, which means adults should be able to make such personal decisions for themselves. That’s one of the reasons that most Americans, according to polls, now support the full legalization of marijuana.
It’s time for Minnesota to seriously consider joining the growing list of states that have ended this unjustified and unwise prohibition. Rep. Metsa deserves credit for starting the conversation.