Marijuana will soon be legal — depending on your definition of "soon." But there are some aspects of its legalization that even the most ardent pot advocates have not thought out.
Voters in Washington and Colorado last month approved ballot initiatives permitting people to puff for pleasure, removing the pretense of a medical need. The federal government has not yet decided whether to intervene and enforce national laws against pot.
But full legalization is coming, eventually. There will be a few holdout states, just as some stayed dry when Congress repealed Prohibition. But young voters, particularly, are more free about what adults do privately, and, if they're not personally using it, they have pot-smoking friends who haven't suffered "Reefer Madness."
Who would have thought 20 or 30 years ago that the U.S. Supreme Court would have on next year's docket two cases challenging definitions of marriage? Racial integration and women voting once seemed farfetched, and some politicians scored political points fighting them, but public opinion prevailed.
Marijuana is a little different, though, and there's more to it than just lifting restrictions. Critics call marijuana a "gateway" drug, for one thing, leading to stronger, addictive substances. Whether that is true, legalizing pot would certainly open the door for lawmakers to experiment with harder stuff. Making marijuana legal moves the benchmark.
After pot, why not hashish? Why not various pills that, in a controlled setting, just make you feel good? LSD? Then, why not cocaine?
After all, as they say of marijuana, people who want to play with their brains and central nervous systems are going to get the stuff. Violent criminal cartels will supply it, burdening police and courts with millions of cases and saddling citizens with felony records. So why not legalize it, regulate it, assure product purity, tax it and use the revenue for education, health care and other good social purposes?
Washington state expects something like $500 million in marijuana tax revenue. But if growers are making big profits off pot, the first thing they'll do is hire lobbyists and spread around campaign contributions, to wheedle their way out of as much tax liability as possible. Every industry does that, so claims of high revenue windfalls may be a bong dream.
There's an article of faith among some marijuana advocates that, once pot is legal, the drug gangs go away. Why do they think that?
Looking back, bootleggers largely vanished when Prohibition ended. But abuse of alcohol — by teenagers and alcoholics — has not gone away. Smuggling of untaxed liquor and cigarettes is still a racket. Crooks will find ways of selling cheaper, untaxed, more-potent marijuana, as they do today. And, of course, they'll continue selling whatever remains illegal.
A likely consequence of marijuana legalization will be an increase in impaired driving. It's pretty easy to spot a drunk, and DUI laws set a presumption of impairment — the familiar .08 blood-alcohol level in Florida.
So the states will have to develop a reliable and reasonable threshold of "unsafe" marijuana consumption. The aforementioned lobbyists will have full-employment legislative sessions as legislators work on that.
I've known users who insist that pot sharpens their senses or, at worst, puts them in a mellow mood and does not distort time and space perceptions for a motorist. Yeah, well, a lot of social drinkers claim a couple belts makes them better drivers, too.
And what of employment law? The state and many private companies have "drug-free workplace" policies, requiring job applicants, and sometimes employees, to pee in a cup. Could they hold it against you, if you smoked a legal joint four or five days ago, or would pot be treated like alcohol? Lots of companies don't hire cigarette smokers, to hold down insurance costs, so would the same rule apply to a weekend pot user?
Speaking of tobacco, what about product liability? You can't market a dish towel in this country without being sued by someone claiming it caused a dislocated duodenum. Do you really think pot billionaires will escape the trial bar's notice? Will Congress or state legislators provide legal protections for this budding industry?
So if you're planning to go into the marijuana business, as soon as it's legalized, you might want to ask Joe Camel what happens a few years down the road.