If Proposition 19 passes in California tomorrow and it is no longer illegal to sell, possess or grow marijuana, we may have begun ascending a slope less slippery than opponents of legalizing drugs might think.
American states spend an estimated total of $50 billion a year on our penal system. If Proposition 19 decriminalizes marijuana in California, the entire country will see how much money can be saved with laws based less on puritanical superstition than on facts.
Then there's the issue of tax revenues: federal and state tax revenues for alcohol sales exceed $5.6 billion. Imagine if Prohibition were still in place, and what that would mean for our tight budgets.
An economist at Harvard recently estimated that a marijuana tax could bring in between $2 billion and $6 billion per year. I'm sure we'd find something to do with that money.
Of course, the radical idea of legalizing drugs would take deep thinking, heavy number-crunching and political cooperation beyond any that we can presently imagine. But that does not make it impossible.
Liberals and conservatives would have to come together in the interest of reducing criminal activity and bolstering the economy. The result of such cooperation - legalized drugs - would bring in tax money to pay for, among other things, drug addiction treatment.
But those stumbling into the whirlpool of addiction would amount to no more than the percentage of alcoholics who always arrive when liquor is available and who are, in the end, a small portion of those who drink. Remember that supporters of Prohibition felt that absolute decay and disorder were not far away as long as liquor could be bought in stores.
That didn't come about. Nor will any such thing when drugs are made legal.
During Prohibition, bootlegging bankrolled organized crime. But while the rise and fall of the bootlegger is an iconic image, it was not until the class film "The Godfather" that a connection was made between organized crime and drug sales. In a meeting of Mafia bosses, one gangster says of drugs: "In my city, we would keep the traffic in the dark people, the colored. They're animals anyway, let them lose their souls."
That is not what happened at all. Drugs stayed nowhere. They spread across the country and have now become established as part of leisure entertainment. In fact, the trade is driven by casual users, not addicts. Casual users work everywhere from Wall Street to Main Street and are not known among those in law enforcement for committing the kinds of violent crimes we see from desperate and ruthless addicts.
A coalition made up of those with nerve and imagination can deal with everything that will be arrayed against them. Most of the opposition to legal drugs is supported by melodramatic images of addled addicts dominating our streets and making it unsafe to ever leave home.
But things are different than when Prohibition made it possible for untaxed empires to be created from beer and bloodshed. Now, so many live on medicines prescribed by their doctors that we know pharmaceutical substances are not automatically evil.
And if legislators were to make it clear to our largest pharmaceutical companies how many billions could be made if they took over products now driven by crime, the money necessary to fight off fear-mongering campaigns would become available. There is that much profit to be had.
Legality would shatter drug cartels and take illegal employment from all of the young people who work for drug dealers like insects inside of an anthill of corruption.
I believe it's coming. The passage of Proposition 19 could begin the ball rolling. If not then, soon. Never is not an option.