Ruth Bass: After years of costly war, taxes on pot sales are smokin'

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RICHMOND — The marijuana tide is turning. Instead of money flowing out in great quantities to finance a futile war against use of cannabis, it is coming back to communities and states where the drug has been legalized. The return nowhere near reaches the previous expense, but tax collectors are smiling.

The war against use of marijuana has gone on longer than our fight in Afghanistan and has been even less successful. The American Civil Liberties Union did a study in 2010 showing that in that year alone, $3.6 billion had been spent enforcing marijuana possession laws, reportedly resulting in 820,000 arrests. The campaign showed little return for its money: Smoking pot and illegal dealing were not snuffed out.

The ACLU study also showed that legalized marijuana could create a multibillion dollar industry for the United States. And as 2020 swung in, pot vendors in Illinois said happy new year to $3.2 million in recreational cannabis sales on the first day that it was legal in that state. The ACLU, being primarily an organization defending civil rights, also points out that blacks were nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, although both races were about even on use of the drug. We need equal arresting.

Pittsfield is already feeling the warmth of the tide. Finance director Matthew Kerwood reported last week that the local infant cannabis businesses contributed $448,000 in taxes to the city's coffers during the last half of 2019. It's expected the annual total will be about $1 million, and the administration plans to put half into the city's "rainy day" fund. A certain percentage will also be put aside for public works, which — it's to be hoped — might see some changes in cracked and pitted asphalt around the city.

A couple of Berkshire towns with marijuana stores are experiencing the same boost in revenue, even as various town boards deal with controversies about location of shops and, especially, farm sites for growing marijuana on a production scale. It's apparently true that, as in all property transactions, location, location, location is primary. It's also apparently true that residents' worries about an obnoxious aroma from cannabis firms are justified. There's a stink.

Those who think legalizing marijuana was dreadful, dangerous or sinful are mainly concerned about driving safety, plus a worry that using marijuana could lead to a desire for stronger, illegal drugs. Perhaps some of the money rolling into towns and cities could be used to enforce laws about texting while driving, driving drunk, driving stoned — or driving badly while totally sober.

Freeing up law enforcement to work on other fronts is important to those who favor legalization. They also consider the question a personal choice issue. In addition, those who seek criminal justice reform and feel strongly that the nation's approach to incarceration is unfair see legalization as a one path to a more equal playing field. And there's no question that the pro-legalization people like the revenue. Colorado, an early decision state, passed $1 billion in revenue recently. In addition, the medical uses of marijuana are verifiably a needed solution for pain.

Still, personally, the idea of marijuana cafes seems like something we could put off for a while. It's also odd to think that, in any Massachusetts neighborhood, indoor plant trays may be growing more than tomatoes. And it's a bit of a struggle in this corner to accept that some of my grandchildren are quite gleeful about the prospect of standing in line on Dalton Avenue or Great Barrington to buy gummies or chocolates that aren't exactly penny candy. The ones who are age-eligible live in Connecticut, which hasn't made such establishments legal yet, so something new was available in the annual Santa adventure. No idea if they enriched Pittsfield's treasury, but it's always great to visit Grandma.

Ruth Bass is an award-winning journalist. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.

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