So What about This? Embracing the Messy, the Long and the Complicated


As a political science and public administration professor people often ask me… 

Why doesn’t anything ever get done?” 

I normally have three answers.   

The first is to point out that our founding fathers were actually quite worried about creating a government that actually works.  America is a response to a government/monarchy that was somewhat good at getting things done. If the King wanted to take those annoying colonists down a peg or two?  Send in the Redcoats! Hire the Hessians! New Taxes on Tea!  A government that could get things like that done was not appealing to the founders.  As a result, they set up a government with three overlapping branches, if nothing else to ensure that getting anything done would take some time.    

My second answer is our current hyper-partisan political climate.  For many politicians today, the words “compromise” or “consensus” might as well have 4 letters in them. Increasingly gerrymandered safe districts mean most politicians see little upside in making moves to the middle. The system provided by our founders works best (or maybe only works) when we have politicians who can at least spell compromise or consensus AND are willing to do it.  We do not have a lot of that happening today. 

The third answer is one that politicians and their staff actually know really well.  However, it is an answer that often escapes the people they serve.  It is complexity. The issues we deal with seem to take forever to solve because they are much more complex than most people think they are. 

A perfect example of this complexity is the legalization of marijuana.   

New Jersey has a governor who ran on legalization and the leaders of both houses who say it is going to happen.  The issue itself appeals to most people and many politicians.  Marijuana has proven medical benefits for many very sick people.  Marijuana is a drug that the vast majority of elected officials have admitted to “trying once or twice,” which most likely really means every other Friday night in high school during that one awesome football season.  Marijuana legalization has the significant possibility to correct a huge social justice issue by expunging arrest records for people convicted of possession offenses. Many, many of whom are poor people of color.    

Oh yeah, forgot one thing.  You can tax the heck out of it! Even better, it is what economists call a “sin” or “use” tax.  Meaning the only people who pay it are people who use it.  Woo Hoo! That is a like a jackpot tax for politicians.  Everyone gets the benefits of increased tax revenue but only a few people have to pay it.  So given all of that, why aren’t we all following the recent example set by Ed Forchion (aka New Jersey’s infamous “NJ Weedman”) and sparking up on government property?   

It turns out it is complicated.    

Don’t get me wrong.  I think New Jersey will have legal marijuana and not just the expanded medical kind but also the recreational kind.  The state legislature, the governor and their staffs have been working diligently on the issue for months.  However many local governments are really just starting this process.  It seems essential to me that before anyone tries to paint legalization as “all bad” or “all good”, we must sort through some of the complex issues surrounding legalization. We need to do this not just from the perspective of the state government, but from the perspective of local governments as well. That takes time and it seems to me a good thing that we are taking it.  Here are three examples of the messy, time consuming and complicated issues surrounding legalization.  

How much revenue will governments get? And who gets it? 

To be honest, no one really knows how much tax revenue will come in by legalizing marijuana.  Some supporters of legalization will tell you that with legalization everyone in the state will be entitled to a free unicorn and two puppies.  Some opponents of legalization will say an average municipality would make more by fixing the broken vending machine in borough hall.  These types of advocates on both sides are just plane high.  

The problem with answering this question isn’t that we can’t get to a number.  It is ultimately a solvable math problem (total units sold x tax rate per unit sold= total revenue).  The problem is we can’t yet agree on what the costs will be AND who will be paying those costs.  If you do a simple search on “Tax Revenue for Legalization of Marijuana,” you will get a number ($300 million seems to be floating around).  But if you do a search on “Costs of Legalization of Marijuana,” you get explanation of why the costs to individual marijuana users will likely decrease after legalization before you get to any discussion of the potential costs to state, county or local governments.  The reasons for that is that we don’t know or at least don’t yet agree on what to put in the cost equation.  Some people think there will be significant additional law enforcement costs or health care costs.  Others argue these will be minimal.  One very complex part that very few people think about is the costs of prosecuting impaired driving from marijuana.  Prosecuting drunk driving cases takes a lot of money, so perhaps the same goes for prosecuting stoned driving cases.  

All of these questions ultimately will have actual answers. However, figuring them out correctly BEFORE legalization happens requires significant estimations and policy wonk work.  That is complex and takes some time. Unfortunately, it is only after legalization that we will know for sure if we estimated correctly.    

However, one thing seems pretty clear.  We might not know specifically what the costs will be beyond a good guess, but we have a pretty good idea of who will pay them.  It is local governments.   So wherever we end up in these calculations we need to make sure local governments have the revenue they need to pay these costs.  The New Jersey League of Municipalities has recently made an argument that at least 5% of whatever the projected revenue is should go to local governments (See that seems to make sense to me.  

Saying it is legal doesn’t mean it is isnt illegal  

I am not a lawyer and I don’t play one on TV.  However, it seems clear that marijuana is likely to remain illegal at the federal level as long as we have an anti-marijuana zealot like Jeff Sessions running the Justice Department.  (I know, I know everyone thinks he will be gone right after the mid-terms but I doubt the next guy will be any better and yes I am betting it will be a guy.) At the very least, this means, the states where marijuana is legal will be “at odds” with federal law.  Now add on top of that those overzealous localities who are rushing to pass resolutions banning marijuana sales in their towns. In theory, marijuana could be Illegal for the feds.  Legal for the state.  Sort of Illegal for the Boro.  Yeah that is wicked complex and how all of that works itself out matters.  It matters for lots of reasons but none as important as the fact I mentioned earlier.  One positive outcome promised in legalization discussions is the expunging of many arrest records for marijuana possession.  How does that work?  You have a record with the feds and your village but not the state?  We probably need to think that through a bit.  Told you it is complex.   

This complexity between feds, localities and states also raises the sticky problems about what do you do with the money from marijuana sales.  If sales of marijuana are federally illegal does that mean banks can’t take the money sellers deposit and use that money to fund projects in other states where it remains illegal?  Again, I am not a lawyer but complex questions like this are worth addressing.  One way that seems interesting is Phil Murphy’s idea of a state bank.  Maybe a state bank dedicated to investing all of its money within the state could be a place for marijuana sellers can deposit it.  It is at least worth bringing it up again.  

Is marijuana a gateway drug? 

Not only am I not a lawyer, I am not a doctor either.  But this part of the equation is perhaps the most emotionally fraught issue of the bunch.  There is no one who wants to do anything to make it easier for people to become addicts.  You can find studies that show higher percentages of opioid users smoked marijuana at some point.  You can find studies that show absolutely no correlation between opioid use and marijuana use.  Both sides will trot out lab coats to make their points.   

But the problem with these studies is that they have taken place in a world where marijuana is illegal.  One interesting hypothesis is that because marijuana is “illegal” people who use it become more comfortable doing illegal things… like other drugs.  This makes sense because the brain chemistry processes of drug connectiveness (going from one drug to another) are the same between alcohol and marijuana and so called harder drugs like heroin and cocaine.  Yet the linkages between alcohol and opioid use are less statistically apparent than those for marijuana.   

It is Messy, It Takes Time and It is Complicated and that is ok. 

So the answer to all these questions is we don’t know know with 100% certainty what will happen until marijuana becomes legal.  The problem with uncertainty is that anti-marijuana zealots (and in to a much lesser extent pro-legalization side) start spinning stories about how legalization will all but bring cannabis into school lunch programs and we must act now to save our precious children from this scourge.  That is frankly a breathtakingly stupid argument, but perhaps an effective one when uncertainty and messiness reigns.   

But in the real world the best we can do is plan for contingencies, take our best guesses and run the best numbers.  I believe that once we do all of that the social benefits to legalization will outweigh the social costs.  But until that work happens at both the state and local level we shouldn’t be proposing premature bans designed to scare people or rushing in to full legalization with open arms.  In short, anytime someone tells you it is a “no brainer” either way? They are the ones without the brain.

Matt Hale is a Professor of Political Science at Seton Hall University.

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