Blankley: Decriminalizing pot is half-baked
Last week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo sent shock waves through the state when he announced that he wants to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. That same day, CNN reported that if marijuana were legalized nationwide, it could save America $8.7 billion in enforcement expenditures and earn about the same amount from taxation.
The governor's plan is half-baked. His proposal does nothing but condone the use of an illicit drug, make it more accessible to minors and open the door to legalization.
Decriminalizing any amount of marijuana would have incredible negative impacts on our society -- and its eventual legalization would be even worse. Despite the widely cited savings and revenue, costs will almost certainly go up -- both for government and from health insurance companies. Consider that state taxation revenue from alcohol and cigarettes doesn't come close to covering the costs associated with legal substances that are addictive.
To take one example, California collected $1.4 billion in taxes on alcohol and tobacco sales combined in 2005. In the same year it spent $19.9 billion on costs associated with substance abuse, including criminal justice, education, mental health, public safety and prevention services. (New York State does not have comparable statistics available.)
Likewise, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse reported that government spending related to smoking, alcohol abuse and illegal drugs reached $468 billion in 2005, which was more than one-tenth of combined federal, state and local expenditures for all purposes. This number will only go up as more states decriminalize or legalize marijuana.
Health-related costs and worker productivity concerns must also be considered. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that about 50 percent of daily marijuana users become addicted to it. Chronic users experience increased rates of anxiety, depression and schizophrenia. Marijuana users have a fivefold increase in risk of heart attack in the first hour after smoking the drug. Additionally, according to the institute, marijuana smoke contains carcinogens -- 50 to 70 percent more than tobacco smoke. Some studies also show that regular marijuana smokers have dysregulated growth of epithelial cells in their lung tissue, which can cause cancer.
The institute also reported that people who do not smoke tobacco but do frequently smoke marijuana have more health problems and miss more days of work than nonsmokers. In fact it cites several studies that have found that workers' marijuana smoking was correlated to increased absences, tardiness, accidents, workers' compensation claims and high job turnover.
Supporters of Cuomo's proposal argue that decriminalizing marijuana will decrease crime and the numbers of people who are jailed for possessing small amounts of marijuana. But while fewer people may go to jail in New York, it won't stop the cartels or gangs from selling and killing over any drug -- legal or illegal -- from which they can make money.
State Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) got it right when he said that the proposal would "effectively condone the practice of carrying around marijuana." It's wrong, he said, that it would be only a violation "to walk around with 10 joints in each ear."
The question for lawmakers is: What's next? Decriminalizing small amounts of meth or cocaine? Where do you draw the line to determine which drug is OK to decriminalize?
Laws are made to protect people from harming themselves and others. Cuomo's plan is the wrong move for New Yorkers. It opens the door to legalization and won't reduce costs to taxpayers.
Bethany Blankley is a political analyst who writes about cultural issues.