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Why Connecticut Should Go From Decriminalizing to Legalizing Marijuana

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A tremendous windfall opportunity in the multi-millions of dollars stands before Connecticut, blowing a big old toke right in its face.

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What sense does it make for a government to start handing out Get Out of Jail Free Cards for drug offenses without getting something in return from the drug users? Ask Connecticut.

Yesterday, state legislators in the House of Representatives, in concurrence with the Senate (and supported by Governor Dannel Malloy) passed a landmark measure to decriminalize marijuana. The penalty for possession of less than an ounce will no longer carry a misdemeanor charge. It will be classified not as a crime but as an infraction -- like jaywalking or disturbing the peace.

"Final approval of this legislation accepts the reality that the current law does more harm than good -- both in the impact it has on people's lives and the burden it places on police, prosecutors and probation officers of the criminal justice system,'' Malloy said in a statement.

If the numbers coming out of Connecticut's Office of Fiscal Analysis are right, the new law will free-up nearly $1 million in state law enforcement resources and tickets issued to offenders will net upwards of $600,000 in new fines. Seems like a decent chunk of change, until you consider that Connecticut is more than $3 billion in the red.

At $150 a pop for first offenders, the tickets hardly seem worth the paper their printed on. Sure, decriminalization makes sense from a criminal justice perspective, but in terms of raising state revenue, it's a drop in the bucket. A tremendous windfall opportunity in the multi-millions of dollars stands before Connecticut, blowing a big old toke right in its face -- the smoke signals reading: "Legalize me!"

Advocates for the legalization of marijuana have long argued that taxes collected from just a fraction of the pot sales in deficit-saddled state and local economies would be enough to help rescue them from debt.We've already seen how medical marijuana has created a thriving industry of retailers, suppliers and distributors in states like Oregon California and Colorado. Medical marijuana sales are predicted to reach $1.7 billion this year alone with seven times that potential if 20 more states get into the market.

Figures like these are catching the attention of, not just state governments, but Big Pharma. Looking to cash in on the crop are over 50 companies recently granted DEA licenses to grow cannabis and release it in generic pill form. While those companies have thus far gone unnamed, MSN speculates the list to include Valeant Pharmceutical International (VRX), Pfizer (PFE), Merck (MRK), GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Bristol Myers-Squibb (BMY), Novartis (NVS) and Watson Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (WPI) which already markets the THC pill Marinol.

California actually put legalization to a vote last November after state legislators estimated that a $50-per-ounce tax on marijuana (the crop is worth an estimated $14 billion a year) could bring in about $1.3 billion a year in additional state revenue. Proposition 19 was ultimately shot down by voters, a defeat many attributed to the lack of young people showing up to the polls in an off-year election. The measure is likely to return in 2012.

States like California and now Connecticut cannot possibly make the argument against legalization on moral grounds after they've decriminalized it. Once pot smoking is no longer considered a crime, regulating and taxing the substance as a source of state revenue is a lateral move in terms of societal impact. The economic implications, on the other hand, are a staggering step forward.

If Connecticut is serious about plugging that $3 billion hole, it should turn to its potheads for help. Go ahead and ask them. They're just waiting to pitch in! As attorney and founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Keith Stroup, puts it, "We're raising our hands and saying: 'Tax us!'"
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