Down in smoke

My former colleague and neighbor Jesse Walker, in the course of an “appreciation” of exiting Sen. Russ Feingold — whom he calls “the Bob Barr of the left” — expresses the briefest note of sadness over the failure of California’s Proposition 19, the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010. I will demur.

Sadness? At a law that, had it passed, would have regulated and taxed the use of a common plant — a lovely weed and an amazing source of industrial fiber as well as widely used herbal remedy? No. All those regulations and taxes would only have skewed the cultivation and marketing of the plant from personal and small-business operations to Big Business. Right now Californians are increasingly cultivating and openly using marijuana. In defiance of the federal government, no less.

But with the initiative, the state would have started cracking down on little producers, and making it harder for small business to provide their customers with the drug.

Only if the act had put the plant in the same category as virtually every other good would a legalization measure been worthwhile. But making of marijuana a special product with special taxes? That’s just too special.

I’m sad, instead, that people feel they have to “sell” freedom in terms of a tax revenue source. It’s like arguing against slavery by saying “just think of all the revenue we can get to the states via the poll tax!”

I know, I know: That is the way alcohol prohibition was abolished, via the need to tax it at the state level. And maybe there’s a normalizing tendency, there. Maybe that’s kinda good.

But in my state, two ballot measures just went up for a vote, both being attempts to disentangle the remnants of Prohibition in our state: The Washington Privatize Liquor Distribution initiative and the Revise State Liquor Laws initiative. Both failed.

Once you put a regulatory and taxing scheme upon the people, and the interest groups solidify behind the laws, it is devilishly hard to remove them.

So maybe we can wait to simply legalize marijuana. Let people grow and trade it. And if they want to package the weed and sell it in stores, let it be taxed as condoms and baby aspirin are (or, depending where you live, are not) taxed.

In the course of explaining the meaning of Prop 19’s failure, Brian Doherty (since I mentioned that Jesse was a former neighbor, should I mention that Brian’s a former roommate?) explains just how complex Prop 19 was. It had things to say about employer/employee relationships as well as legalize personal cultivation and possession of cannabis. And, of course, taxing it. Specially. Better, I think, to provide separate simpler measures: One for legalizing personal ownership and cultivation, another (I suppose) for taxation, another to regulate sales to minors, etc. That way voters could learn from both success and failure of a ballot measure.

As it is, when you lump quite a few elements of law into one measure, you effectively turn a simple ballot measure into a package deal, like a representative. And then you don’t really know, after the election, what people were voting for or against.

There are reasons why democracy sucks. Prop 19 seems like just another example of at least some of those reasons.