If you just listen to just one side of the debate to legalize marijuana, you'd think it was a wonder plant.
A common argument is that marijuana is safer than the legal drug alcohol. But do facts back up that assertion?
“Marijuana is safer than alcohol,” Madeleine Martinez of Oregon’s pro-legalization organization NORML said, “no one's ever died of a lethal dose of marijuana.”
Mark Herer, owner of the The Third Eye Shoppe, a classic “head shop” located on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard in Portland, said he’s “met a lot of screwed up people in my day, I've met a lot of potheads in my day… most of the potheads I know are not screwed up people.”
Washington state lawmaker Mary Lou Dickerson, 63, is pushing for legalization and equates current marijuana laws to alcohol prohibition in the 1920’s.
“We're treating marijuana like we treated alcohol during prohibition, and it doesn't make sense,” she said.
Dickerson wants farmers licensed to raise marijuana and liquor stores to sell it with a 15 percent tax. Just like with alcohol she says, the tax money can offset the costs of addiction treatment - for all kinds of substances.
“Alcohol causes tremendous social costs in this state,” Dickerson added.
But opponents of legalization claim this thinking is naïve, since the numbers don't measure up.
Dan Harmon with Hoffman Construction is also chairman of Associated Oregon Industries (AOI), one of the main lobbying groups for business interests in the state.
“You would have to tax alcohol in the state eight times more than you're taxing it now to recover … the societal costs that are occurring because of alcohol,” he told KATU News.
He thinks that legalizing marijuana would create the same problem. He believes while it would raise some revenue, that revenue would not come close to paying for the problems associated with the drug, resulting in a net loss instead of a financial gain for the state.
Harmon cited a study commissioned by AOI and the Oregon Nurses Foundation that found alcohol abuse cost Oregon’s economy approximately $3.2 billion dollars in 2006.
The costs were in health care, lost earnings, and crime - an amount eight times greater than the $395 million in tax revenues collected from alcohol sales.
But Rep. Dickerson remains convinced legalizing marijuana is a solid answer to deep cuts facing substance abuse treatment services and drug prevention programs.
Dickerson, 63, admitted she used marijuana in the distant past “when I was young” but is not currently a user.
An early fiscal analysis of her bill shows that Washington stands to make nearly $1.7 billion over the next decade if it legalizes marijuana.
Measures to legalize marijuana were recently voted down in the Washington House, but a Senate version is still pending.
Oregon NORML has turned in sponsorship signatures for the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act and is currently waiting for official ballot titles from the state.
Once it receives those, it will begin polling, and circulating petitions. It needs 82,769 valid signatures by July, 2, 2010 to qualify for the November 2010 election.