It’s time for N.H. to legalize marijuana, not casinos

It’s a promising libertarian solution to the state’s budget mess

The governor and Legislature are now face-to-face with the choice of either impossible budget cuts or finding new sources of revenue.

Casino money is illusory, at best. The price of gambling is a high one. Costs always outweigh benefits. Significant tax reform is a non-starter. We could slice needed services, requiring overworked state employees to do even more with even less. We could turn to the old statewide property tax, but property taxes are too high and do not tax fairly. Our businesses already shoulder more than their fair share of the burden. The interest and dividends tax hits the elderly way too hard. We’re running out of options.

But there is a potential solution so obvious, so fat with dollars, and so clearly consistent with conservative New Hampshire tradition and values, although most super-cautious legislators can’t see this pile of untapped revenue because it’s as bright as the sun.

Let’s do what a Feb. 12 WMUR/UNH Survey Center poll revealed. It showed that, even with no discussion of the subject, 56 percent of those surveyed “approve the selling of marijuana at state liquor stores and taxing it at rates similar to how alcohol is taxed.”

Alcohol can be abused, and too often, it is. Yet we also know making alcohol consumption illegal only made things worse. Having alcohol illegal and out of control was horribly counterproductive. Today we have an effective system in place, and alcohol is under control. And in New Hampshire, it provides a steady, predictable source of revenue.

Marijuana prohibition is also an historic failure. Keeping it illegal has meant it is out of control. It is time to get it under control.

Can marijuana be abused? Of course it can, but the current approach fails to keep it out of the hands of minors. We must limit availability, and the amount any individual may purchase. That is why our state liquor system would be the perfect entity to handle what must be a highly regulated system.

A bill now moving through the Legislature, House Bill 492, could be amended to replicate Washington state’s exemplary revenue bill. Such legislation has the distinct advantage of being in the New Hampshire tradition: Don’t tax me, tax the guy behind the tree. And through HB 492, the vast majority of citizens wouldn’t pay, although there would be a huge amount of potential revenue. Huge.

Of all the options on the table, HB 492 is a good one among many unattractive proposed taxes, a source of revenue consistent with New Hampshire traditions and values.

Why now? For one reason, the president has said that when it comes to enforcing federal marijuana laws during his second term, “I have bigger fish to fry.” Colorado legalized it and Washington state has already seen a significant boost in revenue. The Washington State Liquor Control Board regulates and taxes marijuana for persons 21 and older, and adds a new threshold for driving under the influence.

There’s no question the “war on drugs” has mirrored the bloody failed prohibition of alcohol. It's not as though tough enforcement keeps kids away from marijuana.

What does work is education. Witness great anti-tobacco and drunken driving progress. The experts are people from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition: police, prosecutors, judges, prison wardens, federal agents and others who want to legalize and regulate marijuana after learning firsthand that prohibition is not only ineffective but causes violence and crime.

Educate and regulate — that works.

Another benefit would be to New Hampshire’s overburdened legal system. There is much serious violent crime to fight, and it makes absolutely no sense to keep taking up space in our courtrooms and jails with people arrested for marijuana possession. If we treat marijuana like alcohol, we’ll see more success than any amount of skill and dedication in the criminal justice system can ever produce.

The public is ready for serious discussion of this promising, libertarian solution – a solution that will come. The only question is when.

State senator from 1990 to 2004, Burt Cohen is now host of The Burt Cohen Show on WSCA Portsmouth and WNHN Concord.

Categories: Opinion