Bruce Ramsey wrote a charming opinion piece in The Seattle Times last week about the real reason people should support the initiative in November to legalize marijuana, I-502 – not for the taxes, the prisons, or any of the other number of “remarkably impersonal” reasons, but simply because it’s enjoyable to smoke. “It depends on what you want, revenue or prisoners,” he then added, referring to the bill’s plan to tax cannabis.
While I agree and applaud his beautiful frankness on the issue, it is sadly an overly simplistic view. Like most pieces of complex and controversial legislature, there is a history that requires revisiting to understand the reasons behind I-502 and why its actual effects will be different from its proposed effects, and ultimately, why I-502 is not a good initiative.
When the United States was founded, hemp was known as an incredibly useful product. George Washington grew hemp at his home in Mount Vernon and called on other Americans to do the same (there is also some speculation that he and Jefferson might have smoked cannabis). Hemp can be used to make incredibly strong and biodegradable plastics, effective green fuels, is nearly unsurpassed in nutritional value, and has a well-earned reputation as a general tonic and home cure for a variety of illnesses and disorders. It was the best source of fiber for textiles, rope and paper for a long time.
In the early 1900s, the chemical and explosive company DuPont discovered a chemical process that allowed them to make paper from wood pulp more cheaply than competitors, who were using hemp. Not long afterwards however, the hemp industry made some similar breakthroughs that threatened to retake the market from the growing corporate giant. DuPont had a friend named William Randolph Hearst, who owned the San Francisco Examiner, the New York Journal and New York World. Through false but repetitive and sensational stories, they convinced a large part of America that “marihuana” caused black and Hispanic men to go crazy and rape white women. This ultimately culminated in the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which essentially made possession and transfer of cannabis illegal in the United States. That Act has lasted 75 years.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could repeal this backward law?
That’s not what I-502 is going to do. For starters, the I-502 campaign itself touts that the biggest benefit is the tax revenue.
With the proposed taxes, lawyer and legalization activist Jeffrey Steinborn predicts that prices of pot will jump by 150%, leaving the black market sources not only still a competitive source, but one with the ability to increase their own price for additional revenue. DUI laws tacked on to the bill will simply take the war on drugs from the suburbs to the streets, where Washington State’s office of financial management predicts “increased costs from additional driving while under the influence administrative actions, arrests, prosecutions and incarcerations.” In other words, I-502 will put more people in prison, not less, and gangs won’t be financially hurt by any of it.
The initiative gets everything wrong, down to the very spirit in which we should rescind the 1937 Act. We should be doing it because the law is wrong, not because it’s a beneficial economic compromise. As a pro-legalization advocate, it pains me to oppose the first serious initiative to rescind a backwards and corporately-biased law, but it seems clear that I-502 not only won’t solve the problem it’s supposed to – it would probably make things worse.