A Different Kind of 'Tea Party'

What would you do with an extra $14 billion dollars? Members of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) want to find out.

Earlier this morning, the organization presented a mock check to the U.S Treasury Department in the sum of $14 billion dollars. The check total represents the combined savings and tax revenues that would be generated by regulating the sale and production of cannabis like alcohol

“We represent the millions of otherwise law-abiding cannabis consumers who are ready, willing, vocal and able to contribute needed tax revenue to America's struggling economy," NORML Executive Director Allen St. Pierre said at a press conference at the steps of the general post office in New York City. “All we ask in exchange for our $14 billion is that our government respects our decision to use marijuana privately and responsibly."

But it’s not just NORML that is calling on lawmakers to tax and regulate marijuana. In today’s economic climate, the question is: who isn’t?

Late last month, during President Barack Obama's first-ever Internet Town Hall, questions pertaining to whether legalizing marijuana like alcohol could help boost the economy received more votes from the public than did any other topic. The questions' popularity -- and the President's half-hearted reply ("No," he laughed.) -- stimulated a torrent of mainstream media attention. In the past two weeks alone, commentators like David Sirota (The Nation), Kathleen Parker (Washington Post), Paul Jacob (TownHall.com), Clarence Page (Chicago Tribune), and Jack Cafferty (CNN) have all expressed sympathy for regulating pot. Even Joe Klein at Time Magazine weighed in on the issue, writing this month that "legalizing marijuana makes sense."

It makes cents too.

According to a 2005 analysis by Harvard University senior lecturer Jeffrey Miron -- and endorsed by over 500 distinguished economists -- replacing pot prohibition with a system of taxation and regulation similar to that used for alcohol would produce combined savings and tax revenues of between $10 billion and $14 billion per year.

A separate economic analysis, conducted by George Mason University professor Jon Gettman in 2007, estimates that the total amount of tax revenue derived from cannabis could be far higher. According to Gettman, the retail value of the total U.S. marijuana market now stands at a whopping $113 billion per year. Using standard tax percentages obtained from the Office of Management and Budget, he calculates that the diversion of this market from the taxable economy deprives taxpayers of $31.1 billion annually.

For local and state governments, taxing and regulating pot could help reduce growing deficits. For instance, in Oakland, California the City Council gave preliminary approval last week to a proposal to raise the business tax paid by city-licensed medical marijuana dispensary operators. Council members estimate that the new tax will raise anywhere from $400,000 to a "couple million" dollars annually.

Likewise, lawmakers in Massachusetts and California are debating statewide measures to tax and regulate the production and sale of cannabis to adults. Both state proposals would impose a fixed excise tax on the retail production of marijuana -- non-retail cultivation would remain untaxed -- as well as sales taxes on the commercial sale of the drug to anyone 21 years and older.

"The revenue effect of the proposed Act is an estimated annual revenue gain of $1.339 billion," says the California State Board of Equalization and Taxation, which is backing the measure. A more liberal economic assessment performed by California NORML's Dr. Dale Gieringer estimates that the annual revenues raised via the advent of a legal cannabis industry in California could be far higher.

“A comparable example would be California's wine industry," Gieringer wrote in a 2009 report. "With $12.3 billion in retail sales, the wine industry generates 309,000 jobs, $10.1 billion in wages, and $2 billion in tourist expenditures. Extrapolating these figures to a legal marijuana market, ... one might expect $12 to $18 billion in total economic activity, with 60,000 to 110,000 new jobs created, and $2.5 to $3.5 billion in legal wages, which would generate additional income and business taxes for the state.”

Finally, taxing and regulating cannabis would have the added bonus of taking the production and trafficking of pot out of the hands of criminal enterprises and, increasingly, drug gangs. According to the Associated Press, marijuana is the “biggest source of income” for Mexican drug cartels. Legalizing pot would eliminate this primary income source for these cartels and, in turn, eliminate much of the growing violence and turf battles that currently surround the drug’s illegal importation from Mexico.

Any way you look at it, legalizing cannabis just "makes sense." So why aren't we doing it?

Paul Armentano is the Deputy Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. He is the co-author of the forthcoming book, Marijuana is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? (Chelsea Green, 2009).

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