Will marijuana legalization eradicate the black market?
October 27, 2010
Supporters of Proposition 19 liken their cause to the lifting of prohibition on alcohol nearly 80 years ago. Making pot legal and regulating it like alcohol, they say, could raise millions in tax revenues and wipe out the black market, along with the social costs associated with it. [CaliforniaWatch]
But breaking the underground trade in marijuana might not be so easy.
Marijuana seizures are running at record levels in California, having more than tripled since 2005. But drug agents say they are getting only a fraction of the total crop. And in California’s saturated pot market, dealers big and small are moving the drug out of state in ever larger quantities, using everything from overnight delivery services to tractor-trailers.
“We’re seeing more and more of the marijuana cultivated in California being exported where there is a market that will pay more,” said Bill Ruzzamenti, a former special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration who now heads a regional agency that monitors drug trafficking in California to California Watch.
Ruzzamenti says the pot cultivation boom in California began soon after voters legalized medical marijuana 14 years ago. Now, he believes, California could be a net exporter of the drug.
“Literally, we have had shipments of marijuana from California seized in all 50 states. And they’re going to where they can maximize their profits,” Ruzzamenti said to California Watch.
The surging demand for California-grown marijuana is good news for some growers and bad news for the drug war. But the trend could challenge a key goal of Proposition 19 – wiping out the illegal drug trade.
The effect on the black market
Former San Jose Police Chief Joe McNamara has drawn parallels to the repeal of alcohol prohibition.
“Al Capone and his bootleg gangsters were shooting up the streets not because they were drunk on booze. It was for the vast underworld profits. And once alcohol was legalized, it put them out of business as bootleggers. And that’s the goal of Prop 19 that would be achieved very quickly,” McNamara said to California Watch.
But opponents argue the black market will persist because the measure will not change federal law or statutes in other states.
“There are millions of plants being grown illegally,” said George Mull, who heads the California Cannabis Association, a medical marijuana group that opposes Proposition 19 to California Watch. “A lot of it is being sent out of the state. There’s no way to think that if Prop 19 passes, those same people are going to register their (marijuana) grows and then keep all of their plants here in California.”
Mull says even if Proposition 19 passes, the black market will continue, because prices will stay higher in other states where pot remains illegal, leaving in place a premium for smugglers.
Some California law enforcement officials worry that the black market could grow even stronger, with criminal gangs using legalization as a cover for massive smuggling operations.
But former Police Chief McNamara says similar arguments were made against the lifting of alcohol prohibition and they proved wrong. He says marijuana is no different.
“Commercial growers would be regulated,” he said to California Watch. “They would be controlled. They would be subject to law enforcement. And if they were illegally exporting the drug, that would be against California law as well.”
McNamara says he hopes the push for legalization will spread across the country, making it easier to enforce state regulations. California voters will decide for themselves on Nov. 2.