My Turn: The price of prohibition

For the Monitor
Saturday, September 23, 2017

Now that the “Live Free or Die” state has stopped arresting people for possessing small amounts of marijuana, the debate over marijuana legalization and regulation in Concord has finally begun in earnest.

After years of stonewalling, the Legislature passed a bill earlier this year that created a commission to study the issue. Most state residents would agree that this is long overdue.

In May, the Granite State Poll, conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, found 68 percent support for legalization. The poll results also indicate that this formerly controversial idea is now much more popular than any of the state’s politicians. Remarkably, twice as many New Hampshire residents support legalization as approve of the president of the United States.

Unfortunately, the membership of the commission is not reflective of public opinion. In fact, it is overwhelmingly stacked against reform.

As an example of what supporters are up against, one of the commission’s members will be Sen. Bill Gannon, R-Sandown, who opposed medical cannabis and decriminalization efforts and vowed on the Senate floor earlier this year that he would “never” support legalization. Another commission member, an organization known as New Futures, has also come out strongly in opposition (Monitor Forum, Sept. 16).

New Futures’s website claims that its “policy positions are based on the best available science and data.” Sadly, the organization’s positions on marijuana policy have long fallen far short of this standard. Ignoring clear evidence that cannabis has therapeutic benefits, New Futures has opposed medical cannabis legislation for many years. In 2017, despite overwhelming evidence that cannabis is helpful as an alternative to opioids, they opposed the critically important bill that opened the state’s program to patients suffering from chronic pain.

Now that the debate has shifted to legalization for adult use, New Futures appears committed to ignoring even the most evident costs of prohibition, such as the fact that prohibition enriches and empowers criminal enterprises. They also adamantly ignore even the most obvious economic benefits of regulation, which go far beyond tax revenue and include the creation of tens of thousands of jobs in states that have pioneered these policies.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether the half-billion dollars that Colorado has collected in marijuana sales taxes constitutes a “windfall.” However, a narrow focus on sales tax revenue misses the much larger picture. Although some predicted that the sky would fall when Colorado legalized marijuana in 2012, the state’s economy has unquestionably been booming ever since.

In 2017, U.S. News and World Report ranked Colorado as the best state economy in the nation. In both 2015 and 2016, Forbes ranked Denver as the best place to do business among the country’s 401 metropolitan statistical areas. The state’s tourism industry has broken records in recent years, and its gross domestic product has increased at a higher rate than the national average.

Meanwhile, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Attorney General Cynthia Coffman recently reported to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions that the state has observed “no statistical change” in teen use rates.

Where, exactly, is the evidence of disaster?

Contrary to the narrative presented by New Futures, some of the strongest arguments in favor of sensible regulation are coming from states that have already observed success after implementing regulated markets. For example, in a recent letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown wrote, “There can be no denying that Oregon has benefited from this industry.”

Similarly, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson strongly defended their state’s approach in a letter to Sessions.

“We encourage you to keep in mind why we are having this conversation,” they wrote. “State and federal prohibition of marijuana failed to prevent its widespread use, which was generating huge profits for violent criminal organizations.”

Massachusetts, Maine and Canada are already moving forward and learning from the best practices that have been observed in states that went first. It’s time for New Hampshire to do the same.

(Matt Simon is New England political director of the Marijuana Policy Project.)