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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Marijuana

Enforcement savings byproduct of legal pot in Washington

Boy did a lot of people suddenly start smoking marijuana.

Washingtonians and visitors have spent almost a quarter-billion dollars on retail weed since legalization. It’s a lot of money. Enough to cover a week’s worth of Forest Service firefighting costs this August. Enough to pay Marshawn Lynch for almost 21 years of Beast Mode at his current compensation.

A lot of money. Unless you compare it to something much more expensive: the drug war.

In that case, it’s a pittance.

A decade ago, a team of economists tried to estimate the total cost of pot prohibition nationwide, arriving at an estimate of $10 billion to $14 billion a year. Split the difference and factor in inflation, and Washington’s first pot year starts to look puny – it would finance about 1.7 percent of the annual cost of enforcing our country’s unjust and wasteful reefer madness.

So, while Washington’s first year of legal marijuana resulted in a lot of economic activity, the most important economic marker is what we didn’t spend: Almost $1,000 per person. That’s based on the ACLU’s estimate of the minimum per-capita cost of pot enforcement in Washington before legalization.

In other words, however much free adults spend on marijuana from here on out will pale in comparison to how much every single one of us has already been spending on prohibition – as well as the exorbitant social costs of a racist system of enforcement.

The Washington State Institute for Public Policy, the state’s legislative research agency, just released a year-one report on legalization. At this point, many of the questions one might have are still too hard to answer – in particular, a deep, rigorous cost-benefit analysis will take more time and data, according to the report’s authors.

But the money is definitely rolling in. In the first 15 months of legal recreational marijuana, the state’s 173 stores sold more than $246 million worth of marijuana, according to the Liquor and Cannabis Board. Total sales – grower to processor to retailer – surpassed $357 million, generating $89.5 million in taxes.

Spokane County leads the state in growing and processing pot. Retail sales here have topped $30 million so far, and all told, marijuana was a $51 million enterprise in the first 14 months of legalization.

It feels as if Washington is at the front edge of a wave. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, and four states, plus D.C., have legalized recreational weed in some form. Polling shows growing support for legalization nationwide, with majorities supporting it repeatedly in surveys.

Not everyone is on board.

According to the report, 72 Washington cities or counties have prohibited retail sales. The federal government still classifies pot in the same category as heroin. And all across the country, every day, people are arrested for possession – nearly 90 percent of all marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010 were for simple possession, according to the ACLU.

Marijuana laws have been among the most unequally enforced of laws – black people are almost four times more likely to be arrested for possession than whites, though the rate of doobage among those groups is about the same, according to the ACLU.

This ratio soars in the richest neighborhoods, meaning wealthy white people have long lived with de-facto legalization while young men of color are stopped and frisked and imprisoned for mere possession.

It simply is not worth it. In 2005, more than 500 economists signed a report and letter to President George W. Bush urging a debate about the potential costs and benefits of legalization. The report, authored by economist Jeffrey Miron, concluded that eliminating prohibition in favor of a taxed, regulated, legal market would add – in savings and new revenues – between $12 billion and $14 billion a year to government coffers. That would be enough, the report noted, to seek and destroy all the “loose nukes” from the Soviet-era, or to implement anti-terrorism security measures at every port in the nation.

That was 10 years ago. Things are changing, here and elsewhere, but the war on weed remains the law of the land, and it makes no more sense than it ever did.

Washingtonians are spending and earning a lot on pot. But the best thing about legalization is what we stopped spending.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.
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