The Case for Marijuana Legalization and Regulation

The following is the testimony NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano will deliver on Oct. 28 to the California Assembly Public Safety Committee's special hearing on "the legalization of marijuana: social, fiscal and legal implications for California." Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, sponsor of AB 390, The Marijuana Control, Regulation and Education Act, is the chairman of the committee.

By any objective standard, marijuana prohibition is an abject failure.

Nationwide, U.S. law enforcement have arrested over 20 million American citizens for marijuana offenses since 1965, yet today marijuana is more prevalent than ever before, adolescents have easier access to marijuana than ever before, the drug is more potent than ever before, and there is more violence associated with the illegal marijuana trade than ever before.

Over 100 million Americans nationally have used marijuana despite prohibition, and 1 in 10 -- according to current government survey data -- use it regularly.

The criminal prohibition of marijuana has not dissuaded anyone from using marijuana or reduced its availability; however, the strict enforcement of this policy has adversely impacted the lives and careers of millions of people who simply elected to use a substance to relax that is objectively safer than alcohol.

NORML believes that the state of California ought to amend criminal prohibition and replace it with a system of legalization, taxation, regulation and education.

The case for legalization and regulation

Only through state government regulation will we be able to bring necessary controls to the commercial marijuana market. (Note: Nonretail cultivation for adult personal use would arguably not be subject to such regulations, just as the personal, noncommercial production by adults of beer is not governed by such restriction.) By enacting state and local legislation on the retail production and distribution of marijuana, state and local governments can effectively impose controls regarding:

  • which citizens can legally produce marijuana;
  • which citizens can legally distribute marijuana;
  • which citizens can legally consume marijuana; and where, and under what circumstances such use is legally permitted.

By contrast, the criminal prohibition of marijuana -- the policy the state of California has in place now -- provides law enforcement and state regulators with no legitimate market controls. This absence of state and local government controls jeopardizes rather than promotes public safety.

For example:

  • Prohibition abdicates the control of marijuana production and distribution to criminal entrepreneurs (i.e. drug cartels, street gangs, drug dealers who push additional illegal substances);
  • Prohibition provides young people with unfettered access to marijuana (e.g., according to a 2009 Columbia University report, adolescents now have easier access to marijuana than they do alcohol);
  • Prohibition promotes the use of marijuana in inappropriate and potentially dangerous settings (e.g., in automobiles, in public parks, in public restrooms, etc.)
  • Prohibition promotes disrespect for the law and reinforces ethnic and generation divides between the public and law enforcement. (According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report, 75 percent of all marijuana arrestees are under age 30; African Americans account for only 12 percent of marijuana users but make up 23 percent of all possession arrests).

Marijuana is not a harmless substance -- no potentially mind-altering substance is. But this fact is precisely why its commercial production and distribution ought to be controlled and regulated in manner similar to the licensed distribution of alcohol and cigarettes -- two legal substances that cause far greater harm to the individual user, and to society as a whole, than cannabis ever could.

Taxing and regulating cannabis in a manner similar to alcohol will bring long-overdue state oversight to a commercial market that is presently unregulated, uncontrolled and all too often inundated by criminal entrepreneurs.

While this alternative may not entirely eliminate the black-market demand for cannabis, it would certainly be preferable to today's blanket, although thoroughly ineffective, expensive and impotent, criminal prohibition.

Voters nationwide, and in California in particular, support ending criminal marijuana prohibition. This past spring, 56 percent of California voters expressed support for taxing and regulating marijuana in a statewide Field poll.

Doing so would give greater control to state law enforcement officials and regulators by imposing proper state restrictions and regulations on this existing and widespread marijuana market.

I urge this committee to move forward with the enactment of sensible regulations for legalizing marijuana.


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