Massachusetts has a $3 billion state budget deficit, Gov. Mitt Romney and the legislature are battling over multi-million cuts in education funding, and heroin users are dying at a record pace while tight times shrink the number of treatment beds by half. The Bay State budget, like those of about 40 other states, has been hit hard by tough economic times and could use some help. Boston University economist Dr. Jeffrey Miron has a simple, if only partial, solution: Legalize marijuana.
In a study commissioned by the Massachusetts-based marijuana reform advocacy group Change the Climate (http://www.changetheclimate.org) and released September 5, Miron reported that legalizing marijuana in Massachusetts would save the state as much as $138 million per year. That translates to the salary equivalent of about 2,300 Massachusetts police, firefighters, or teachers. The report, "The Budgetary Implications of Marijuana Legalization in Massachusetts," estimates that the state could save $120.6 million in criminal justice costs by regularizing the herb and generate an additional $16.9 million in tax revenues on the legalized pot commerce.
Miron does not delve into the pros or cons of marijuana prohibition -- only the budgetary impact. In the study's executive summary, he writes, "The report is not an overall evaluation of marijuana prohibition; the magnitude of any budgetary impacts does not by itself determine the wisdom of prohibition. But the costs required to enforce prohibition, and the transfers that occur because income generated in the marijuana sector is not taxed, are relevant to rational discussion of this policy."
And Miron parses those costs and transfers carefully, albeit with a relatively simple and conservative set of assumptions. For instance, to determine police costs in enforcing marijuana prohibition, Miron calculated the number of marijuana arrests, their percentage of all arrests, and the cost per arrest for police agencies. He discounted two-thirds of all marijuana arrests as not "stand alone," or being arrests where other criminal behavior was the cause of arrest. Still, the study found that Massachusetts law enforcement agencies spend $40.3 million just to arrest pot smokers and dealers.
"We looked at the reduction in expenditures in criminal justice activities that would result from legalizing marijuana," Miron told DRCNet. "We also estimated the tax revenues Massachusetts would earn if marijuana sales were legalized and taxed, providing that the federal government would ever allow it. "We could save about $120 million in criminal justice spending and gain those tax revenues. That's a lot of money."
The state could also save $13.6 million spent by the Dept. of Corrections on the 10 people housed in state prison and 575 sentenced to County Corrections on marijuana charges. That money could go a long way toward restoring $23 million in cuts to Massachusetts school districts affected by charter school enrollments. State Sen. David Magnani (D-Framingham), following a parallel path, has offered a budget amendment that would get that money back to the school districts by giving judges the ability to release nonviolent offenders who have served half their sentences.
Or the $68.5 million that the Massachusetts judiciary and prosecutorial systems spend enforcing marijuana prohibition could take care of it, and then some. And that, according to Miron, is only counting felony marijuana convictions, not the misdemeanors that clog the system.
For all the exciting budgetary implications of his report, Miron has not gotten much attention so far, nor, he said, were legislators ready to repeal prohibition. "There is not a lot of interest yet," he said, "a small story in the Boston Herald and the local NPR affiliate, WBUR, but it is starting to percolate," he said. "As for the legislature, well, there's not a lot of movement. I've talked to these guys lots of times, and I have the feeling that they think it would be perfectly okay to legalize it, but they fear their voters wouldn't go for it."
In recent elections, Massachusetts voters in districts across the state have endorsed decriminalization or legalization proposals, but legislators still weren't sure, Miron said. "The ballot questions were non-binding and it was an off-year election, so it is hard for them to tell how representative those votes were. Still, you would think this would be a relatively receptive state."
Change the Climate, the group which commissioned Miron's study, is working to make the state even more receptive. The group, which has done innovative marijuana legalization ad campaigns in Boston and Washington, DC, is gearing up a new round of ads aimed at Bay State voters. Unfortunately, the campaign got off to a rocky (if subsequently well-publicized) start this week when its first billboard included a photo of a real life Massachusetts State Trooper. The trooper and his troop objected, and the billboard company, which inadvertently used the wrong photo, replaced the ad. But more are coming.
And given Miron's results, could this weekend's pro-pot Freedom Rally on Boston Commons hear the rallying cry of fiscal conservatism?
Visit http://www.changetheclimate.org/bu-study/mass_budget.pdf to read the study in its entirety online, and visit http://www.changetheclimate.org to view their ads and other information. Visit http://www.masscann.org for information about the Freedom Rally.