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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Pot profits may pad our pockets

opinion@dailylobo.com

Opinions are changing when it comes to the subject of marijuana — and New Mexico should join the short list of states that have pioneered the path to pot decriminalization.

As New Mexico Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino (D-Albuquerque) said in the Daily Lobo last week, people who want to smoke pot are already smoking it. This amendment is not letting some demonic genie out of the bottle; it’s controlling how and by whom pot is sold, who can use it and where the money goes.

In one of the poorest states in the country, that last bit means a whole lot. Potential New Mexico state tax revenue from pot has been estimated to be anywhere from $40 million to $140 million.

That’s a lot of money that could support programs like Medicaid, Early Child Education or even the ailing Lottery Scholarship.

Beyond tax revenue, marijuana legalization could do a lot for our state. Marijuana-related crimes would no longer eat up the time of our overstretched state and local police forces. New local businesses would open to fulfill the demand for pot dispensaries and, as Colorado has lately proved, tourism would receive a boost.

New Mexico already has some of the most relaxed marijuana laws in the nation. A first offense for carrying under an ounce of marijuana (outside of a school zone) carries a penalty of 15 days in jail, $50-100 in fines or both. The first offense of a sale of up to 100 pounds of marijuana carries a misdemeanor penalty of a fine up to $5,000, up to 18 months in prison or both.

Let’s break this down: According to the Vera Institute of Justice, it costs about $80 a day to keep someone in jail. So if all 2 million people in New Mexico were sentenced with the maximum fine and jail time for a first-time possession offense, that means the state would generate $200 million in revenue, but pay $24 billion to keep everyone in jail for 15 days.

The result is no better with regard to sellers. Using the same formula, the state would make $10 billion in fines, but shell out $87 billion. Keep in mind that none of these figures includes the cost in man-hours for arresting and prosecuting said 2 million people.

In Colorado, one ounce of cheap weed generates about $50 in state taxes — without costing a dime to convict and incarcerate the buyers. In the state’s first week for legal blazing, the Huffington Post reported that sales exceeded $5 million. That’s $1.25 million for the state.

Of course, it isn’t just about the money.

There is a list of potentially harmful side effects that is often cited when discussing marijuana. According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, this includes low blood pressure, dry eyes, short-term memory loss, dizziness, fatigue and reduced attention span. There is a possible slight increased risk of lung cancer only for those who smoke marijuana.

That’s a pretty lightweight list when compared to the Mayo Clinic’s list of possible side effects from alcohol use: stroke, high blood pressure, cirrhosis of the liver, heart failure, pancreatitis and breast, mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus and liver cancers.

Of the two, one is legal and bears the risk of far more severe possible side effects.

There is also the question as to whether marijuana is a gateway drug that leads users to try meth, cocaine, heroin or a myriad of other hard drugs. Reputable sources, like the Mayo Clinic, are unable to offer definitive data. The simplest answer may be that marijuana is a gateway drug in the same way alcohol is: if people are willing to drink a beer, they might also be willing to try whiskey or a wine cooler. Not everyone does, though.

Then there is the argument that doing any drug is bad. It’s easy to respond by saying, “if you don’t like it, don’t do it,” but that’s a cowardly answer. It’s a true statement, but it does not get to the heart of the matter.

Many things that are bad for us are considered legal nevertheless.

Things like coffee, cigarettes, BPA, pollution, alcohol and unprotected sex are certainly not against the law. With these things, we trust people to make their own decisions. Marijuana should be no different. Marijuana is less likely to cause the sort of harm the aforementioned things could, and if its purchase is limited by age, it is still more controlled than half of the things on this list.

It’s difficult to see why New Mexico wouldn’t want to legalize marijuana. Its side effects are minor, it would generate a hefty chunk of money and it would leave police with more time to investigate more serious drug crimes like heroin trafficking or meth labs.