The economics of marijuana legalization became vividly obvious this week with Colorado's emergence as the first state to allow the regulated sale of the drug for personal recreational use.
As reported Thursday in The Morning Call, a new law, the enactment of which was forced more than a year ago by Colorado voters, took effect on New Year's Day.
A similar proposal was made in Pennsylvania last year, in a bill introduced by state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, but that measure was promptly buried in committee by political bosses.
Most Harrisburg politicians are reluctant to get behind anything not pushed by special interests and their generous "political campaign contributions," unless the wrath of voters becomes intense, as happened in 2005 when the pols repealed their outrageous and illegal pay grab.
Thursday's story did not get into the economic implications of the Colorado situation, but when voters start finding out about such details, there may be another rash of wrath in Pennsylvania.
The first fact to consider is that the cost of Prohibition II is crippling to the public. (Prohibition I was when alcohol was made illegal, with obviously disastrous results.)
America has the world's highest percentage of people in prison, at around $30,000 a year for each, and around 80 percent of them are there for drug-related offenses.
The American Civil Liberties Union pointed out this week that most drug-related arrests involve marijuana, not heroin or other hard drugs as some authorities would like us to believe. The ACLU said 88 percent of pot busts are for possession only.
The cost to taxpayers for incarceration alone — not counting the cost of draconian law enforcement — is staggering, and the only result is rampant illegal drug trafficking and profits. (Concomitant with the fabulous profits of both Prohibition I and II, there have been widespread reports of bribes, which I cynically suspect motivates some authorities to oppose legalization.)
Pennsylvanians should be particularly sensitive to what is happening with Colorado's shift from an illegal drug market to a regulated and taxed drug market.
Colorado has issued 130 licenses for marijuana outlets, but only 18 have thus far completed the process. They can sell in-state customers, 21 and older, up to one ounce at a time, although the customers can come back for more later. Out-of-staters are allowed only a quarter of an ounce at a time.
Customers are typically paying $30 for an eighth of an ounce of potent pot, so you can see how cash registers must be clanging away every time an ounce is sold.
The Colorado tax on legal marijuana is about 29 percent, and most of the revenue will go for education. Can you imagine the impact of that sort of revenue in Pennsylvania, where Gov. Tom Corbett has slashed education spending instead of increasing it?
I asked Sen. Leach how his legalization measure (Senate Bill 528) is doing.
"It just sits," he said, referring to the committee quagmire. That also is the case with Senate Bill 770, his proposal to legalize medical marijuana. The personal use bill was new in 2013; Leach has been introducing a medical marijuana proposal for years.
"My view is that this is just inevitable," he said of the personal use legalization. "People are going to see what happens in Colorado and Washington." (Washington state has legislation similar to that in Colorado, but it has not yet taken effect.)
"In Pennsylvania alone, we would save $350 million a year in the direct cost of prosecuting marijuana offenses," Leach said, and taxes "could range from $200 million to $500 million a year."
Leach also said it would ease the dangers of unregulated marijuana sales, noting nobody is harmed by marijuana itself, while illegal street traffickers typically lace marijuana with other dangerous substances.
He also agreed with my comparison of Prohibition I and Prohibition II. "You don't see people getting shot over buying alcohol, as we saw during Prohibition," he said.
Thirteen states have legalized the medical use of marijuana, as prescribed by doctors to help patients suffering from the agonies of cancer and other ailments. It also has been reported that marijuana can help stop epileptic seizures.
As I argued in July, cancer and epilepsy patients and their families are not very generous with multi-million-dollar political campaign contributions, as was the case with gas drilling industry robber barons. Gov. Corbett has promised to veto any medical marijuana legislation designed to help such patients, even though most Pennsylvanians want it. In addition to Leach's medical marijuana bill, a similar bill is buried in the House, co-sponsored by state Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh, who also saw the Colorado situation as the key to getting things moving in Pennsylvania.
"I think it demonstrates that the legalization of the recreational use of marijuana is probably more mainstream than people realized," Schlossberg told me.
In Pennsylvania, unfortunately, mainstream interests and the merit of a bill do not count for as much as a few special interest lobbyists with plenty of money to spread around. It may take anger, similar to that generated by the pay grab, to make Harrisburg do the right thing.
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun