Seriously Now … Drugs to the Rescue?

By Emanuel Boussios and Robert Costello

Why has marijuana suddenly become the carrot-and-stick tool to plug our government budget gaps? Over the years taxing the sins of society — substances (includes smoking products, drugs, and alcohol), gambling and sex — as a capital driven government enterprise, has become politically popular. Even more important than the changing of government policy on these “sins,” and the particular focus here is on drugs, is the changing of American values about drugs.

In the midst of a historic financial meltdown, state governments have been seeking creative and innovative ways to plug massive budget gaps. For example, in California state lawmakers have been considering legalizing the consumption, manufacturing, and distribution of marijuana in an attempt to raise cash. The high end of estimates predicts that California could generate $1.2 billion to $1.4 billion in new tax revenue annually. Another innovative tax revenue idea is New York State’s proposed “fat tax” which would levy an additional penny per ounce on sugar beverages such as soda, which would raise a considerably lower amount in the tune of $404 million dollars annually.

Since the days of Prohibition, governments have taken steep measures to raise tax revenues by placing levies on items thought to be morally reprehensible to American values. For example, New York State has proposed an additional tax on cigarettes to the nation’s highest rate of $6.80 a pack. The argument for this tax is not only to increase state revenues, but to elicit a moral penalty on a deviant substance. Other examples of raising tax revenues have been state lottery systems, which not only raise money for education, but also regulate an otherwise criminal enterprise. In addition, San Francisco took steps to legalize prostitution in their municipality. Proposition K, which would have effectively decriminalized prostitution, would have been a step in the direction of taxing sex services. Governments and citizens alike appear to accept the taxing of these “sins” of society as a means of not only raising revenues, but also better controlling these deviant acts.

Government policy on drugs appears to be a failure and needs changing. The War on Drugs has resulted in the largest incarceration rate in the industrialized world. In the US, taxpayers lose in terms of paying to incarcerate those who are generally seen as non-violent offenders, and make up the lost income tax revenue with additional local taxes, for example raising property taxes. The War on Drugs is a failed policy in desperate need of reform. One way of looking at reform is if the government was to be the sole actor in the supply side (of marijuana in California, for example) of the drug trade, thus marginalizing the criminal activity of the trade. If this scenario were to occur then the focus can be shifted completely to the demand side of the drug trade. In other words, government agencies can look to control the consumption of drugs and therefore reduce the abuses of these substances.

What the lawmakers in California are proposing is not only a shift in drug policy, but a shift in American attitudes and values about drugs. This is similar to the shifting attitudes about alcohol consumption post-Prohibition. In other words, the consumption of alcohol in the early 1900s was viewed as a highly deviant activity. As we know now, this stigma has been reduced. Of course, it takes generations for this to occur and we believe the same patterns may occur if governments were to continue its practice of legalizing drugs.

There’s more at stake with California’s legislative changes in regards to marijuana than meets the eye. It is possible that a cultural change about drugs may in fact be in the works if California and other states follow in legalizing the drug trade.

Emanuel Boussios, Ph.D. is a professor of Sociology at State University of New York’s Nassau Community College and a research consultant at Stony Brook University. Robert Costello, J.D., Ed.D. is a professor and chairperson of the Criminal Justice Department at SUNY Nassau Community College.

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2010

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