From the Orange Co. Register, published Aug. 5, 2010. Reprinted in full below.
California conservatives in November should support Proposition 19, a ballot initiative that would remove criminal penalties for the possession, cultivation, and private use of marijuana by adults. And this support should be based on core conservative principles such as free markets, limited government and the rule of law.
The economic argument for legalization ought to be persuasive for most clear-thinking conservatives. Simply put, the current prohibition of cannabis has produced few if any social benefits while the costs of prohibition have been outrageously expensive.
For example, Harvard economist Jeffery Miron has estimated that the total private and public costs of cannabis prohibition in the U.S. are $13 billion annually. In California, Miron projects a roughly $2 billion cost reduction associated with legalization and up to "several hundred million dollars" in taxes on cannabis sales. (The State Board of Equalization estimates the tax revenue at almost $1.5 billion annually.) Thus legalization and regulation of cannabis would lower private and public costs, decriminalize suppliers and consumers, and help reduce California's persistent deficit.
Legalization would also reduce drug violence (costs) and the power of the drug cartels. Historically, cartel violence has only been associated with products that the government makes illegal. After all, legitimate businessmen don't usually shoot their competitors or threaten to harm potential customers.
The most applicable and best example of this principle in the U.S. is the passage of the federal Volstead Act, prohibiting alcohol sales and the subsequent rise of the organized crime cartels in the 1920s and early 1930's. When Congress repealed alcohol prohibition in 1933, and the states began to regulate alcohol distribution, the gang violence associated with buying and selling booze fell, and the rule of law was restored.
Understandably, some critics of legalization hold that it is morally wrong to legalize a product that can be abused, especially by the young. We find this argument unconvincing, even ironic, because under prohibition the marijuana market is totally unregulated, and consumers of any age have no difficulty in obtaining supply. Not good.
Indeed, the proposed "Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act" seeks to bring a long-overdue rationality to the marijuana market by allowing local governments to impose sensible regulations. It would, for example, establish age restrictions on consumption (21 years) and also provide a general overall framework for the drug's production, quality control, and distribution. The proposal would also impose restrictions on where and when cannabis could be legally consumed. This framework for an orderly and safe cannabis marketplace could actually be expected to mitigate much of the social cost associated with the ineffectual prohibition regime.
Finally, conservatives should not accept the argument that a product must remain illegal simply because it might possibly be abused. This argument is specious at best (it would prohibit swimming pools and skiing) and leads directly to the all-intrusive Nanny State, where federal bureaucrats ultimately decide which products (or medications) are good for the individual, even when their behavior is absent harms to others. Instead, conservatives should always support individual and family responsibility in product (and health care) choice and demand full accountability for those choices.
Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley Jr. – staunch conservatives with impeccable credentials – both strongly supported an end to the war on marijuana. The initiative in November is a sensible, common-sense step in the right direction.