Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

Monday, June 8, 2020

"Why Marijuana Legalization Funds The Police"

The title of this post is the headline of this timely new Forbes piece worth reading in full.  Here are excerpts:

Bribing the cops is illegal, but not in politics.  Without paying off the cops, California might not have legalized recreational cannabis.

But now, four years later, with the legal industry struggling and police unable to protect legal merchants from either the illicit market or organized thieves, there’s serious doubt whether devoting tax revenue from marijuana sales to police budgets was smart politics.  And in light of calls to defund or cut police spending throughout the country, California’s experience is a warning for legalization efforts in other states.  Should police get a cut before education, healthcare, or disadvantaged communities shut out of the legal market?  And does law enforcement have any business making money off of legalization at all?

Eager to sell regulating and taxing cannabis to uneasy suburban and conservative voters, the authors of Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, offered the state’s powerful law-enforcement lobbies a gift.  Twenty percent of the promised $1 billion in annual tax revenue legalization would create was earmarked for “public safety.” Legalization advocates heard an earful from growers and merchants eager to go legal — why reward the crews that had spent decades trying to arrest them? — but it was sold as necessary and practical electoral strategy. And from a public-safety standpoint, the gambit worked — sort of.  Though the cop lobbies opposed the measure anyway, they also didn’t run a massive scare campaign. On Election Day 2016, AUMA won more than 57 percent of the vote....

Similar tactics have been employed elsewhere.  California’s generosity was notable only in its size. Marijuana legalization has meant money for American police everywhere the social experiment’s been tried....  In Nevada, pot taxes help pay the police to “enforce” the measure (along with, one assumes, other laws).  In Colorado, cannabis taxes fund diversion and addiction-recovery programs, which are administered by the police.  In Portland, Oregon, most of a special 3 percent city tax on cannabis, part of which was meant to help jump-start minority entrepreneurs, somehow ended up in the police budget, infuriating local lawmakers who thought the cash would go to minority entrepreneurs....

Either Arizona, New Jersey, or maybe New Mexico or New York will be the next state to legalize cannabis for adults.  All need money, badly.  And in all states, elected officials and policymakers have suggested cannabis could provide that money.  This is the ATM argument for legalization.  But anyone running those campaigns will now have a harder sell promising cash to cops — at all, and not just up front.

As for California, lawmakers are now in a bind.  “I can think of a lot of betters uses of those funds,” said Matt Kumin, a San Francisco-based lawyer who advocated for Prop. 64’s passage.  In the coronavirus pandemic, with millions of Americans going untested for COVID-19 symptoms and millions more out of work, he’s not the only one.

Redirecting legalization money away from police budgets will require modifying the voter-approved legalization law.  This can probably be done by the state Legislature, but not without a fight. “The cops use blackmail, threaten, and practice low enforcement activity if pols threaten their budgets,” Kumin added.  Hints of this were underway before the pandemic and the protests.  In December, an effort to cut local weed taxes in Oakland, where Goldsberry and other merchants paid a 10 percent local tax on top of state taxes, in order to stimulate the industry was opposed — by the local police union.

Defunding the police will be a lengthy and divisive political project.  Whether legalization should fund the police in the first place may be a question settled much sooner.

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/marijuana_law/2020/06/why-marijuana-legalization-funds-the-police.html

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