Marijuana tax windfall for schools

Opinion: Fears for decriminalisation ‘catastrophe’ unfounded

‘The mood was reportedly euphoric at a celebration on April 20th, the traditional day in the US for “free the weed” rallies and “smoke-outs”.’ Above, a man smokes marijuana during the 4/20 Rally  in Denver, Colorado, on April 20th, 2014. Photograph: Mark Leffingwell/Reuters

‘The mood was reportedly euphoric at a celebration on April 20th, the traditional day in the US for “free the weed” rallies and “smoke-outs”.’ Above, a man smokes marijuana during the 4/20 Rally in Denver, Colorado, on April 20th, 2014. Photograph: Mark Leffingwell/Reuters


Things are looking up in Pueblo county, Colorado. The local authority, population around 150,000, expects a budget boost of $1 million this year, most of which has been ring-fenced for refurbishment of schools.

“$1 million is a lot of money to us,” county commissioner Cal Pace told CBS News last Sunday. “Like most local governments for the past four or five years, we’ve been dealing with a very difficult budget crisis. This is the first new infusion of revenue for our county in a while of a significant amount.” The revenue is from a local tax on sales of marijuana, legalised in Colorado early this year following a referendum in November 2012. Similar legalisation will come into force in Washington state in June.

Colorado has earmarked $40 million of marijuana money for the struggling public school system this year. For the first time in the US, it is possible to measure the effect of allowing retail marijuana outlets to operate freely. It’s early days, but the verdict of supporters of the change is, so far so good. The mood was reportedly euphoric at a celebration on April 20th, the traditional day in the US for “free the weed” rallies and “smoke-outs”. (The mood may have been enhanced by usage of the freed substance.)

Dire consequences
Those who campaigned against legalisation appear to concede the dire consequences predicted by some have not materialised. Not yet anyway. Every country where debate on marijuana is under way should pay attention. One of the main arguments everywhere against legalisation is that making marijuana lawful would “send the wrong message”, leading young people in particular on to harder drugs.

Four months is hardly an adequate period from which to draw conclusions, but indications so far are positive. “Going from medical marijuana to recreational marijuana has not even been noticeable to the majority of our deputies,” says a spokesman for the sheriff’s office in the adjacent county, Canon city. “We are not seeing anything that’s over the top”

Harder drugs
What if lifting the ban on marijuana did turn out to lead to increased use of harder drugs? We have some data on this, too, from Portugal. Thirteen years ago, Portugal had a drugs problem as serious as any in Europe. This cannot have resulted from legal use of marijuana, since marijuana wasn’t legal.

Criminal penalties for possession or use of drugs were lifted in June 2001. Since then, it has been legal to buy or possess a gram of heroin, two grams of cocaine, 25 grams of marijuana leaves or five grams of hashish. The amounts have been calculated as enough to last the average user 10 days. The removal of criminal penalties followed from the report of a “commission of experts” that advised on how to handle what seemed an out-of-control situation

One of the advisers was João Goulão, a family doctor from Faro on the Algarve coast. He describes the situation prior to legalisation: “A drugs slum formed in Lisbon . . . Here, junkies slept in shacks or in the garbage . . . They shot up in the street and died in the street. Anyone could observe this phenomenon – on TV, in newspapers, even from the nearby highway.

“Drugs users are not criminals, they are sick,” he insists. They should be treated, not criminalised. In theory, the drugs mentioned remain illegal. (Apparently, there are international treaties preventing the complete removal of legal sanctions.) But the penalties for possessing a permitted amount are in line with those for parking offences. Facilities for treating addicts have been dramatically expanded – although funding is now under pressure from austerity cutbacks.

Goulão doesn’t claim that Portugal has found a formula for solving drugs problems generally. Decriminalisation will make little difference unless accompanied by an expansion of drugs clinics, prevention programmes and social workers on the streets, he says. But these are expensive measures to implement.

If the economic crisis deepens and funds continue to be cut, progress will come to a halt. “We haven’t found some miracle cure. But we can say that decriminalisation has not made the problem worse.”

There are political and philosophical arguments for allowing individuals to use what substances they want as long as they do not harm others. There is a powerful case for making drugs a matter of health and education, not law and justice. These arguments tend to fall down, or are said by interested parties to have fallen down, before assertions about the inevitable catastrophic effects of legalisation.

Relevant experience
What can be said now is that the relevant experience on both sides of the Atlantic – Colorado and Portugal are not the only examples – reveals the catastrophe theory has no basis in fact. Anyone who argues against legalisation without meeting the evidence from Colorado and Portugal head-on is a bluffer.

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