Marijuana in Montana: The people have smoken

Montana Viewpoint By Jim Elliott
Thursday, November 12, 2020
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With the passage in Montana of I-190 we have joined California, Washington, Oregon, and a few other “Liberal” states in making the purchase and use of marijuana jail time free. It has been about 100 years since its use became a social stigma, then illegal in the United States. Marijuana use was blamed for everything from mild insanity to the insatiable urge to massacre hundreds of people at one time. How could something that was once in common use become so bad and then good again? I’d like to say it was common sense that caused many people to realize that people peddling the horror stories of marijuana were just blowing so much smoke, but for a long, long time in America and the world a lot of people suffered from the most serious effects of marijuana use, namely jail time, and sometimes lots of it.

Before the 1920s there were a fair number of drugs that could be had for the asking at the local drug store; cocaine, codeine, and even heroin. In fact, in a book entitled “Chasing the Scream, the First and last Days of the War on Drugs” by Johann Hari the story goes that a young man who grew up to be the head of anti-drug efforts in America, Harry J. Anslinger, was motivated to begin his antidrug career as head of the Federal Narcotics Bureau by the screams of a woman suffering from heroin withdrawal. Fortunately for the woman and the peace of the neighborhood Anslinger was, at that very moment, bringing her a packet of heroin from the pharmacy where he was employed as an errand boy.

But back to marijuana, also known as spleef, ganja, weed, mary jane, muggles, pot, and a host of other interesting names. The irony is that while it was illegal it was a sort of a mild sedative, not very strong at all, and it was only after the strength of marijuana increased a hundredfold that it became legal. It is sort of like outlawing beer but not whiskey.

There have been several reasons why the “War on Drugs” has petered out. The major one was that it wasn’t very effective in curtailing drug use, another that we couldn’t afford the cost of punishing users, and, not the least, that there was money to be made by entrepreneurs and governments alike. One of the curious things about illegal activities is that when governments are cash strapped, as in this case because of the high rates and high costs of incarceration, the light-bulb of brilliant ideas comes on in the governmental head. First, if government makes it legal, the crime rate declines, which is good publicity, but maybe more important, if you can make it legal you can tax it. Of course, there are some illegal activities that are taxed such as illegal gambling earnings and the federal tax on importing marijuana—if it is still on the books—but they are not very efficient means of generating income because the person has to first be caught at the illegal activity and then taxed. Bringing it all out in the open makes it so much easier.

What is most interesting to me is the phenomenon of businesses using small businesses as test markets for new enterprises. Recycling comes to mind. At first the initiative was with the idealists who want to save the planet and maybe make a little income doing it. Once it becomes a viable business enterprise, bigger businesses got into the game and edged out the idealists. Thus, with marijuana. It is curious, for instance the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, who was big-time against marijuana use, is now working with the National Cannabis Roundtable to promote the marijuana industry. I suspect he gets a pretty good salary, too.

But the upshot is that countries such as Portugal and Uruguay which have seen the futility and the expense of arresting and incarcerating drug users and have de-criminalized drug use have seen some pretty substantial social benefit from doing so.

As a side note to this article, in the same election that legalized marijuana use conservative Republicans swept into every statewide office. There was also an initiative (LR 130) to prohibit local governments from regulating the use of firearms. It won, of course, but the marijuana initiative got 50,000 more votes than the gun initiative. Well, we all have our priorities.

Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.