It was a surreal moment earlier this year in San Francisco: Three teenagers arguing the pros and cons of setting up a PayPal account to facilitate easier transactions for their street corner trade in marijuana. California legalized recreational use of the plant this year, and the boys were proving that hooligans can be capitalist opportunists, too.
Virginia hasn’t gone that far (yet?), but it is getting into the medical marijuana business. Last month, it named five companies that will be allowed to operate dispensaries in the state. We offer our cautious support. We’ve known enough people — cancer patients in particular — whose suffering has been eased by use of (illegal) medical marijuana, and we’re hesitant to argue against anything that helps them. Plus, some medical marijuana products are not psychotropic — they don’t get you high.
There’s promise, too, in the recreational business, if for no other reason than the money: Imagine the boon to society of both eliminating the billions of dollars a year government spends enforcing marijuana laws and adding the economic benefits of the hundreds of thousands of legal jobs and the billions of dollars in tax revenue the industry could create.
This summer, officials in New York released a detailed report about the possible effect of legalizing marijuana there. They estimated the market for illegal marijuana in their state alone at $1.7 billion to $3.5 billion a year. With proposed tax rates of 7 percent and 15 percent, officials there think the state could gain $248 million to $678 million a year in revenue.
Colorado collected $200 million in marijuana-generated tax revenue in 2016. Some of the money went into school construction, a topic of some importance in Virginia. Statewide, officials estimated the newly legal industry supported more than 18,000 full-time jobs in 2015.
In Virginia, where historically significant farming jobs have disappeared but the land that was farmed still exists in great swaths, and where there’s always demand for more tax revenue, it’d be foolish to not at least consider the impact of legalizing what it is, after all, just a plant.
That said, we’d argue in favor of great caution.
As is the case with alcohol, marijuana has a noticeable effect on you, and it needs to be regulated. It can’t just be a case of throwing the gates open and hoping to scoop up the money. Weed is a mind-altering substance, and laws for dealing with it need to be on the books, not under discussion, if it becomes legal.
There’s the matter, too, of the plant’s noxious aroma, particularly when lit. Perhaps with some of the newfound riches to come, someone could develop a strain of marijuana that doesn’t smell so foul. If there are people who can make beer taste like gingerbread — and there are, in great abundance, especially here in Richmond — surely there’s someone who can make a bag of pot that smells less awful.