We need to think carefully, critically about legal marijuana

As I visit with people, read newspapers and watch the news, it is clear the people who wish to legalize marijuana are passionate about their cause. The advocates for legalization of marijuana assert that if Initiative 502 were to pass, that it is good public policy that will help the state economically and provide the law enforcement the opportunity to be better stewards of our resources, as we will not be enforcing “minor” marijuana possession laws.

I ask each of you to carefully and critically evaluate what is being said about the legalization of marijuana. Marijuana is the most commonly abused illegal drug in the U.S. Those who support its legalization, for medical or for general use, fail to recognize that the greatest costs of marijuana are not related to its prohibition; they are the costs resulting from marijuana use itself.


Important lessons can be learned from those two widely-used legal drugs. While both alcohol and tobacco are taxed and regulated, the tax benefits to the public are vastly overshadowed by the adverse consequences of their use. Alcohol-related costs total more than $185 billion while federal and states collect an estimated $14.5 billion in tax revenue. Similarly, tobacco use costs more than $200 billion but only $25 billion is collected in taxes. These figures show that the costs of legal alcohol are more than 12 times the total tax revenue collected, and that the costs of legal tobacco are about eight times the tax revenue collected. This is an economically disastrous trade-off.


There is a common misconception that the principle costs of marijuana use are those related to the criminal justice system. This is a false premise. Studies have found that the percentage of people in prison for marijuana use is less than one half of one percent (0.1-0.2 percent).

An encounter with the criminal justice system through apprehension for a drug-related crime frequently can benefit the offender because the criminal justice system is often a path to treatment. The future of drug policy is not a choice between using the criminal justice system or treatment. The more appropriate goal is to get these two systems to work together more effectively to improve both public safety and public health.


Drug-impaired driving will also increase if marijuana is legalized. Marijuana is already a significant factor in highway crashes, injuries and deaths. In a recent national roadside survey conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of weekend nighttime drivers, 8.6 percent tested positive for marijuana or its metabolites, nearly four times the percentage of drivers with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 g/dL (2.2 percent). In a study of fatally injured drivers here in Washington state, 12.7 percent tested positive for marijuana. These studies demonstrate the high prevalence of drugged driving as a result of marijuana use. Law enforcement agencies do not have sufficient resources for dealing with drug impaired drivers.


Studies have shown that expanded availability and perceived social acceptability will increase marijuana use among youth. The percentage of kids in drug counseling for marijuana addiction has been increasing annually, and the resulting negative effects place our youth’s development and our future workforce at risk.


The production and distribution of marijuana is already big business and many times controlled by violent drug cartels. As a law enforcement executive, I am concerned should this initiative pass that violent drug cartels are well-positioned to take advantage of lower marijuana prices by buying up the supply to resell here and throughout the United States. I have questions regarding where marijuana production will be allowed, dealing with fire hazards, security and safety issues posed by these grow houses, which have serious potential to impact the quality of life in our community. Imagine Washington as an attraction that fuels the illicit drug trade for the entire United States. Is that what we want to develop as one of Washington’s prime industries?


Are we serious about introducing more mind-altering substances into our society because it might produce tax revenues? Marijuana still remains illegal under federal law, thus are any locally imposed taxes legally uncollectible? The question is: Can a state compel a person or business to pay a tax that might subject them to prosecution by the federal government?

Drug use is damaging to our communities, our youth and everyone we are sworn to serve and protect. How could we make access to drugs easier? As protectors of public safety, I see only problems associated with Initiative 502 as it threatens to undermine our communities’ public health and safety.

John D. Snaza is the sheriff of Thurston County.