Legalization of Marijuana in Colorado

Abstract

Colorado made history by voting to legalize the recreational consumption of marijuana by adults over 21 in November 2012. This move was prompted by lobbying by marijuana legalization activists in the state. This paper discusses the arguments made by the activists in support of the legalization of the drug. It then highlights the arguments made by the opponents of the legalization efforts. The paper finds that the arguments made by the advocates carried more weight leading to the successful passing of the bill. The paper then assesses the impacts of legalization on crime and the economy in Colorado. It finds that decriminalization does not have a negative impact on crime and that this move has positive economic impacts to the State.

Introduction

Marijuana has established itself as the world’s most popular illegal drug. This drug has a wide consumer base with estimates by the World Health Organization (2010) revealing that up to 2.5% of the world’s population makes use of this drug for recreational purposes. While many governments have imposed stringent measures to curb the use of this drug, the consumption rate has been on the increase. This phenomenon has led to some activists and policy makers calling for a legalization of the drug. One state that has achieved the decriminalization of Marijuana within its borders is Colorado. This state has had a history of lobbying for the legitimate use of marijuana among its citizenry. In 2000, Colorado approved a constitutional amendment to allow marijuana to be provided to medical patients in order to relive pain. After achieving victory in this front, Colorado became engaged in an apparent match towards de facto legalization of marijuana. This match ended when Amendment 64 (which is the Colorado Marijuana Legalization Amendment) gained the majority support of voters and was therefore approved on November 6, 2012. Following this move, the recreational use of marijuana in Colorado State became legal. This paper will set out to explain why Colorado decided to legalize Marijuana and highlight the impacts that his move has had on drug crime and the economy of the State.

Arguments for the Legalization of Marijuana

Legalization of marijuana in Colorado was achieved due to a number of compelling arguments made by proponents of this action. A major argument made in support of legalization was that this action would dramatically reduce the cost incurred by the government in enforcing the prohibition of the drug. Art (2014) documents that before the legalization of marijuana; the State of Colorado had at least 10,000 annual arrests for possession of the drug. The government made use of significant resources to arrest and prosecute the individuals whose offense was possession of marijuana. Proponents therefore argued that the State Government would save a significant amount of money if it made the drug legal since the move would free up the resources currently utilized to enforce prohibition. Freeing up the resources that were previously used to enforce marijuana restriction would also lead to greater police efficiency. Art (2014) reveals that reforming marijuana law leads to the police having more time to focus on the serious crimes taking place in the society.

Another potent argument made by supporters of marijuana in Colorado was that its legalization would enable the government to benefit from the trade in this commodity. In spite of the stringent policies against the drug, it continued to enjoy a wide consumer base. The arrest and prosecution of more people on illicit use of the drug did not deter others from using the drug. This created a demand base that was supplied by black market traders who dealt in the product. The government was unable to benefit economically from the thriving marijuana industry. This assertion is supported by Gettman (2006) who asserts, “Considerable unreported revenue for growers without corresponding tax obligations to compensate the public for the social and fiscal costs related to marijuana use” (p.5). Proponents asserted that legalization would enable the government to benefit from the thriving marijuana industry. With legalization, a portion of the profits would go to the government thereby increasing the revenue base for the State. This argument was very compelling since the government officials admitted that they were missing out on the opportunity to benefit from the huge profits accrued by traders in this industry.

Advocates argued that legalization should undermine the thriving and highly profitable underground market for marijuana. Due to its illegal status, the black market has been the primary means through which the Colorado marijuana market has been sustained. This underground market has made enormous profits due to its monopoly in the production, distribution and sale of the product. Marijuana legalization advocates argued that regulated sale of the drug would remove the monopoly held by black market traders (Bremner, 2014). It would also drive down prices therefore forcing the black market dealers out of business. Most black market dealers are involved in marijuana trade due to the high profit margins attained from dealing in the drug. Lower prices would remove this financial incentive. Former Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo who supported Amendment 64 declared that this bill would strike a blow against murderous Mexican drug cartels that had made billions because of their monopoly in illegal marijuana trade (Sullum, 2013). Undermining the underground market is an important goal since this market is characterized by gang violence and irresponsible behavior such as selling marijuana to minors.

Supporters of legalization claimed that this move would lead to better governmental control over the industry. This would increase the safety and quality of the product sold ensuring that consumers were protected. Without legalization, the production of marijuana is unregulated meaning that the safety and quality of the product is varied. Consumers are exposed to risks since the producers can deal in contaminated products that pose significant risks to the user. McLaren (2008) explains that due to the illicit nature of the drug in most states, there are no guidelines or controls imposed on its cultivation. Individual producers use their own methods leading to end-products that might be harmful to consumers. With legalization, the government is given the power to provide guidelines and controls that must be followed by products. This minimizes the risks to the consumer due to quality assurance. Research demonstrates that after decriminalization, the level of high quality marijuana available to Colorado residents increased.

Grassroots campaigners in support of marijuana asserted that the drug was not as harmful as opponents declared it to be. They presented the drug as less harmful than alcohol demonstrating that if the drug was used in a responsible manner, the harmful effects could be avoided. The legalization advocates also pointed to the unfairness of banning marijuana while alcohol, a substance that has greater health implications, was legal. The former Colorado congressman, Tom Tancredo stated that the government was mistaken in “spending tens of billions of dollars annually in an attempt to prohibit adults from using a substance objectively less harmful than alcohol” (Sullum, 2013, p.25). Advocates of the legalization of marijuana therefore asserted that the drug should be decriminalized since it was safe for the users.

In addition to this, arguments were made that marijuana has positive health benefits to the users. The advocates of legalization declared that by passing Amendment 64, the government would ensure that more people were able to enjoy from the medical benefits of the drug. This claim that marijuana has medical benefits is supported by the World Health Organization (2010) which declares that there is evidence that cannabinoids have therapeutic effects for “nausea and vomiting in the advanced stages of illnesses such as cancer and AIDS” (p.1). The medical properties of the drug are derived from THC, which is an active ingredient in marijuana. In spite of the illicit nature of marijuana, the government acknowledged the medical benefits of the drug. For this reason, there existed a number of medical marijuana dispensaries all over Colorado. Proponents argued that legalizing the drug would provide the means for even more people to benefit from its curative properties.

Proponents also made the argument that the government needed to respect the wishes of the people. In spite of its illegal status, marijuana is commonly used and culturally accepted by most people in Colorado (Barcott, 2014). Advocates of decriminalization stated that the constitution requires the government to consider the wishes of the people. Since there was an obvious preference for this drug, the proponents made the case that a referendum should be held to amend the constitution in order to make marijuana legal. The vote held to determine whether Amendment 64 should be amended passed with 55% vote, underscoring the support for marijuana use among Colorado residents (Barcott, 2014).

Arguments against Legalization

Opponents of the legalization of marijuana argued that decriminalization would lead to higher consumption rates of the drug. This argument was based on the fact that the stiff penalties attached to consumption or distribution of the drug discouraged many people from using it (Gettman, 2006). To most prospective marijuana users, the risk of a hefty penalty or incarceration dissuaded them from consuming the drug. Decriminalization would not only remove the penalties but increase the ease with which individuals can access marijuana. Easier access would make it easier for minors to use this drug. This would expose children to drug use, a consequent that the opponents of marijuana deem undesirable.

Another significant argument made by opponents was that marijuana legalization would increase the use of other more dangerous drugs including heroin and cocaine. While there is general agreement that marijuana is a fairly safe drug, the same is not the case for hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin. The hard drugs have high levels of addiction and many serious adverse effects. Marijuana is considered to be a gateway drug, which means that most people who start using this drug end up indulging in hard drugs (Volkow, 2009). Since legalization would increase the frequency and consumer base of marijuana, opponents worry that it would increase the risk of more people taking up hard drugs. Such an occurrence would have significant detrimental outcomes on society.

Marijuana has for decades been regarded as an illicit drug in the US and most countries in the rest of the world. There was therefore significant opposition to any attempts at legalizing the drug. A major point raised by the opponents was that the drug has adverse physical and mental impacts on the user. Heavy marijuana use is linked to the decline of memory abilities and severe usage might lead to psychosis. Volkow (2009) warns that marijuana use produces “adverse physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral changes, impairs short-term memory, verbal skills, and can harm the lungs” (p.1). Considering these significant negative health effects of marijuana, opponents argued that it would be irresponsible for the government to legalize the drug. The opponents claimed that the more responsible course of action would be to further curb down on the distribution of the drug and eventually get rid of it from the market.

Effects of Legalization of Marijuana

After deliberation on the issue, the State of Colorado felt that legalization of marijuana carried more benefits for individuals and the State. Amendment 64, which declares that “marijuana should be regulated in a manner similar to alcohol”, was therefore enacted in Colorado (Sullum, 2013, p.23). Following this milestone achievement in the history of marijuana in the US, Colorado has embarked on a project to transform the previously criminal business. Due to the legalization of marijuana in the State, residents are now able to purchase the drug in the same way that they buy alcohol. The decriminalization of marijuana has had a number of important effects in the State. Most of these effects relate to crime levels and economic outcomes.

Effects on Crime

Legalization has had a number of positive impacts with regard to crime. To begin with, it has decreased the gang related violence that was fueled by the illicit trade in marijuana. Before legalization, various gangs maintained control of the distribution of marijuana in their territories. Turf wars broke out consistently as gangs sort to increase their sphere of influence or protect their territory from new players. This contributed to the increase in drug related violence in the State. With the legalization of marijuana, the significance of the black market has been greatly reduced (Sullum, 2013). Most gangs that profited from the sale of the drug have run out of business as more consumers make use of the legal marijuana shops.

A major worry among policy makers was that legalization of marijuana would lead to a spike in criminal activities. This worry was informed by the widely held perception that drug use causes crime. Legalization of marijuana use in Colorado increased the number of marijuana users and it was therefore projected that this would increase crime. Austin (2013) opposes such assumptions by declaring that there is no linear relationship between drug use and criminal activity. The author argues that other factors including socio-economic levels and demographic factors are more responsible for determining if an individual will engage in crime. In Colorado, crime has not increased with the legalization of marijuana.

Legalization of Marijuana has had some important indirect effects on crime. Due to decriminalization of the drug, the law enforcement officers in Colorado have been freed from tackling cases involving marijuana use. They therefore have more resources to use to tackle crime in the State. Art (2014) reveals that police officers have been able to dedicate more time to dealing with crimes such as robberies and murders. The resources previously used to hunt down marijuana users and distributors have been redirected to hunting down major criminals. The crime rates in the State have therefore decreased due to the additional resources obtained due to the legalization of marijuana.

Impacts on Colorado’s Economy

There have been significant monetary benefits associated with the legalization of marijuana in Colorado. To begin with, the State has saved millions of dollars that were previously used to enforce marijuana prohibition laws. A report by Miron (2005) confirms that the US uses in excess of $7.7 billion in prosecuting and punishing consumers of marijuana. The legal status of marijuana has made it unnecessary for law enforcement officials to engage in the hugely expensive task of enforcing prohibitions. Art (2014) estimates that the State of Colorado will save over $60 million annually by removing criminal penalties associated with marijuana use.

Even before its legalization, marijuana was a massive industry in the State of Colorado. However, the illicit label attached to the drug meant that the State government could not benefit from the profits obtained from trade in marijuana. By making the drug legal, Colorado ensured that it would be eligible to receive some of the profits obtained from marijuana trade through taxation. As a result, the government receives considerable tax revenue from the legal sale of marijuana. Unlike other products which are taxed considerately, a steep tax of 25% is imposed on the marijuana available for sale for recreational use (Barcott, 2014). In addition to this, a 2.9% state sales tax is added making the drug one of the highest taxed consumer goods. A significant share of the profit from marijuana consumption therefore goes to the government.

Legalization has led to the creation of employment opportunity for thousands of people in the State. Due to the popularity of marijuana as a recreational drug, there is a great demand for the product. In the past, the illegal status of marijuana and the stiff penalties attached to possession of large quantities of the drug served as a disincentive to most individuals to engage in the production or distribution of the drug. Gettman (2006) confirms that before legalization, the sale of cultivation was considered a felony charge that was punishable by incarceration of 5 years and a fine of $250,000. These hefty penalties prevented the establishment of a thriving local production base in Colorado. As such, majority of the drug available for purchase by Colorado residents was imported through middlemen in the black market. Criminalization of marijuana led to most of the profits obtained from the trade in this product going to the primarily foreign growers. By legalizing the drug, Colorado made it possible for local growers to enjoy the economic benefits attached to producing the drug. With the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, an opportunity for the growth of the marijuana market was opened (Barcott, 2014). People could now produce the drug locally and sell it through a legal channel. New job opportunities were open for individuals in marijuana farms that now exist in Colorado.

In addition to this, legalization has stimulated the Colorado economy by bolstering the growth of the lucrative marijuana industry. Before legalization, the profits obtained from marijuana trade did not benefit the State’s economy. With legalization, the industry is regulated by the government and it plays a role in the State’s economy. Sullum (2013) confirms that owing to the legalization of marijuana, the cannabis industry was instantly transformed into a thriving industry. The retail cost of the drug increased even as suppliers tried to satisfy the increasing demand for the product. The State benefits from this growth in the industry’s productivity.

Conclusion

As it currently stands, only two states in the US (Colorado and Washington) have legalized marijuana for recreational use. The legalization in Colorado was prompted by a number of compelling arguments made by the advocates of marijuana. This paper set out to review the arguments made for and against the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and review the effects that this move had on crime and the drug based economy. The paper began by highlighting the popularity of marijuana and the advocacy for its legalization in Colorado. It then expounded on the arguments made by advocates to support legalization. The paper showed how advocates argued that decriminalization not only saves money on enforcement efforts but also provides the government with additional tax revenue from steep taxation of the product by the State. Legalization also impedes on the profitability of the black market. The paper highlighted the arguments made by opponents of marijuana. These arguments included the risk of increased drug use, negative health impacts, and the risk of users moving on to harder drugs. Legalization has not increased crime rates in Colorado. The paper points out that decriminalization has contributed to crime reduction by preventing drug related turf wars. Legalization has increased the tax revenue for the State and led to new employment opportunities. As such, the legalization of marijuana by Colorado has this far proved to be a beneficial endeavor.

References

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