The day is coming when marijuana will be sold legally in Mississippi under rules similar to those in place for whiskey, wine and beer.
Don’t freak out. Workplace rules will remain. A stoned school teacher or truck driver or retail clerk will still be as vulnerable to being fired as a drunk teacher, trucker or clerk. But 30 states and the District of Columbia have now legalized pot in one form or another, and Mississippi will eventually join them.
The twin rationales will be pretty much as in the 1960s when Mississippi adopted “local option” laws to allow voters in cities and counties to decide whether to permit sales of intoxicating beverages. First, there’s the very libertarian (very Mississippi) belief that people should be as free as possible to make their own choices. Second, there’s a double whammy when it comes to the money part — revenue from taxes and an iffy possibility of savings on incarceration.
It may come as a surprise to people that Mississippi was second only to Alaska in “decriminalizing” marijuana in the 1970s. Yes, possession of large amounts or sale of any amount remains a peniteniary offense. But for the past 40 years or so getting caught with a personal stash has been on legal par or slightly less serious than a DUI.
In recent months, leaders in two cities — Jackson and McComb — have indicated petty pot puffers don’t pose a problem. It would, of course, be meaningless for any city to pass ordinances lightening up on lighting up. Existing state laws would remain in effect. (The cities could tell police to look the other way, of course, just as federal officials have chosen not to enforce federal anti-pot laws in the eight states and District of Columbia where recreational use of marijuana is now legal.)
The counterpoint to legalization is that it’s government’s job to protect the citizenry from harm. Let’s be clear, though. It is error — extreme error — to think of government in that regard. After all, tobacco is harmful and is a profit center for the state. Alcohol abuse destroys individuals and families and drunk drivers kill the innocent, but whiskey, beer and wine provide a key revenue streams for state and local operations. Gambling? It’s entertainment at one level, life-altering at another — yet legislators this summer are salivating over how to spend the gusher of cash they hope will flow from sports wagering which debuted at Mississippi casinos this month.
It’s kind of like personal finance guru Dave Ramsey would say on his radio show: “Folks, credit card companies may act like they are your best buddy, but they are not your friend.” Similarly, people need governments. Governments can do good things and be helpful. But even old George Washington knew that unrestrained government would drain every penny from every person’s pocket.
As for savings in the arena of incarceration, that’s hard to figure. There’s no doubt that the corrections budget in this state is obscene. The U.S. Department of Education reports that nationally spending increased 107 percent on K-12 education between 1980 and 2013. During the same time, spending to lock people up increased 324 percent.
In 2014, Mississippi legislators wisely adopted a series of Texas-tested changes to fight surging prison costs. Most centered on alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders. Rather quickly, the inmate count dropped from 22,237 to 17,900 — but it has started rising and was about 19,000 at the first of this year.
Drug trafficking will still be a felony in Mississippi when marijuana is eventually legalized. The only difference is that if the drug is pot, the charge would be selling without a license.
So how much cash could the state gain by taxing the manufacture and sale of marijuana? It’s not a miracle figure. Forbes reports Nevada profited $30 million during the first six months pot was legal there. Pot is, however, a growth industry in more ways that one. Reuters reports that legal drug sales totaled $5.4 billion in 2013 and forecast an increase to $16 billion in 2020. All in all, though, the best guess is that states would add about 2 percent to their existing general revenue, which in Mississippi would be about $100 million per year.
Arguments against legalizing marijuana are well known and are as valid as they have ever been. But the siren song of getting more money “painlessly” has prevailed in the Capitol in the past, and it will — eventually — again.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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