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C. Robert Gibson Headshot

Legalize and Tax it, Already

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Reporters at the Houston Chronicle are asking the wrong questions.

A Nov. 11 headline reads, "30,000 arrests caught in backlog at Sheriff's Office." The article explains that almost 20,000 misdemeanor warrants are backed up in the police database, straining Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia's staff. Garcia lamented that budget cuts and a countywide hiring freeze are prolonging the backlog. The Chronicle cited similar arrest backlogs in Bexar and Dallas counties.

In Harris County, there were 10,305 marijuana possession arrests for marijuana in 2007, more than any other county in Texas. Coincidentally, the other two leaders in marijuana possession arrests that year were Bexar and Dallas counties, with 8,128 and 4,398 respectively.

In Texas, possession of anything less than two ounces is a class B misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $2,000, and a maximum jail sentence of 180 days. 97 percent of the state's marijuana arrests were for possession. The Chronicle could have asked Garcia if treating marijuana given the same classification as alcohol and tobacco would free up county prison space, or provide Harris County with enough tax dollars to offset public safety cuts, or relieve 10,000 arrests from the county's backlog.

Tobacco use claims more than 440,000 deaths annually. Alcohol kills an additional 37,000 Americans every year, not even including alcohol-related car accidents. Prescription drugs killed more than 30,000 Americans in 2009. These addictive drugs kill almost half a million Americans each year. Marijuana has killed zero. Critics argue that legalized pot would turn the country into a haven for drug abuse, yet Portugal has dramatically lowered their incarceration and addiction rates through decriminalization.

Alcohol prohibition was repealed in the 1930s after America saw organized crime thrive off of underground speakeasy bars and liquor bootlegging. Al Capone and his gang brutally gunned down all who opposed them in the streets of Chicago during the prohibition era. The repeal of the 18th Amendment eventually crippled gangs like Capone's and helped solve social ills.

Alcohol and tobacco are both valuable sources of tax revenue for state governments -- Texas is expected to make $2.8 billion this fiscal year from excise taxes on those drugs. As California's biggest cash crop, cannabis would generate almost as much tax revenue as the wine industry. Repealing marijuana prohibition would boost America's economy with jobs and more than $46 billion in tax revenue.

Before the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, landowners were encouraged to grow hemp, due to its usefulness and versatility. The U.S. Constitution was written on hemp. And one acre of hemp can produce as much paper as 7 acres of wood. Lamont DuPont of the DuPont chemical corporation had developed products to synthesize with wood paper, but not hemp paper.

DuPont outlawed his competitor in 1937 with the help of William Randolph Hearst's paper empire and Harry J. Anslinger's lurid testimonies as U.S. Commissioner of Narcotics. Marijuana's criminalization was coordinated with the help of a factually-deficient, racially-inspired smear campaign.

Here's a question the Chronicle could have asked: Why isn't a medically beneficial, lucrative crop like cannabis legal, like other more dangerous drugs? Even Gallup has found that half of the population already supports legalizing marijuana. It's time for a referendum on marijuana decriminalization. Let the people decide.