Debating the Facts about Legalizing Marijuana


Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from political conversations on WNYC. Thursday on the Brian Lehrer Show the 30 Issues in 30 Days pre-election topic was about legalizing marijuana, something California voters will get to decide next week.

While New York isn't considering the legalization of marijuana any time soon, the two leading candidates for governor have made their positions clear. Democrat Andrew Cuomo admits the state could take in revenue from taxing legalized pot, but still opposes such a move, saying it would be dangerous to public health. Republican Carl Paladino says he would let voters decide whether to legalize growth and sale of the drug.

David Evans, special adviser to the Drug Free America Foundation and Gabriel Sayegh, New York State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which favors legalization, discussed California's Proposition 19, which will permit individuals to grow marijuana for their own use. They disagreed not just over the fundamental wisdom of such a policy, but even seemed to be operating from separate sets of facts about how much revenue would be generated in taxes, how law enforcement operates around marijuana now and what the public health impact of legalization—and increased use—would be. 

Sayegh's argued that prohibition has been a bad policy, because it empowers criminals instead of individuals, legitimate businesses or the state. 

To the extent that there are concerns about marijuana, and there are concerns whether a person likes it, hates it or doesn't care about it, the real question is do we want to have this marijuana operate in a black market where there's simply no control over it whatsoever, which is where the criminal syndicates and gangs organizations take over that control and thrive. Or do we want to bring it under the rule of law and have some ability to regulate and control access toe marijuana and that's what California voters will be able to decide on on Tuesday.

Evans counters that Sayegh's arguements missed the point. The California initiative won't generate tax revenue, like liquor or cigarette sales, because it is about permitting people to grow marijuana in their gardens. He also argued that while New York might generate some income if it legalized and taxed pot, it would also spend more in addiction treatment and ancillary health expenses. Evan argued the drug IS dangerous.

People's perception of marijuana is about 30 years old. We have a lot of new data now that marijuana is addictive. It's the number one drug that kids are in drug treatment for in the United States. There are severe health problems connected with it and it is a lot more potent today yhan it was 20 or 30 years ago...It builds lung disease, for example you get lung disease twenty years sooner with marijuana than cigarettes. Anything that promotes and expands the use of marijuana is going to add more social costs to our society. 

Listen to the entire conversation on The Brian Lehrer Show, and add your take on the debate here.