It's time to reform our marijuana laws

Today, former US Attorney Barry Grissom added his voice to the growing chorus of Kansans calling out for reform of our broken marijuana laws.



Kansas has had a tough battle in recent years. Gov. Brownback’s “tax experiment” has ravaged the state’s budget. We were promised 100,000 new jobs which would then add funding for our schools and balance our budget. The jobs never materialized and by 2014, our state’s tax revenue fell behind even the most modest of projections. Unemployment rates and budget deficits ballooned -- all while school funding, support for social safety nets and the state’s bond rating was cut.

Two years into the Brownback fiasco, Kansas dropped to 41st in the nation in personal income growth (down from 12th a few years prior). The state’s lack of operating revenue was forcing public schools to shut their doors early while infrastructure improvement projects, Medicaid and state university funding was being scaled back. It will take decades for us to recover.

But as former US Attorney Barry Grissom points out in his Wichita Eagle editorial today, there is a way out of this mess -- marijuana law reform.

We should look to states that have allowed for different types of marijuana use and see what’s been their experience. In this regard, Colorado is instructive as to what happens when there is full recreational use. In 2016, total marijuana sales in Colorado was $1.3 billion. As a former prosecutor, that tells me $1.3 billion did not go to criminals, but instead went to entrepreneurs who created over 18,000 full-time jobs that paid a living wage with the state taking in tax revenues of over $200 million.

Given our fiscal mess, it would be nice to have an extra $100 million in revenue that didn’t come from income tax increases.

We should have a vigorous debate as to whether Kansas wants to join the rest of the growing majority of states who have decriminalized marijuana or whether we choose to continue down the path of a failed drug policy of prohibition that continues to waste law enforcement resources.

Mr. Grissom added his voice to the growing chorus of Kansans calling out for reform of our broken marijuana laws, and he is absolutely correct. The reform of marijuana laws in Kansas would be a win, three times over:

It would create new state revenue streams, add new jobs and opportunities for Kansas workers and farmers, all while reforming our deeply broken criminal justice system.

US News and World Report reported in July 2017 that Colorado, the first state to legalize medical marijuana (2000) and also the first state to legalize recreational marijuana sales to adults (2014), had, between 2014 and May of 2017, pulled in a whopping $506 million in tax revenue. Colorado then spent 51 percent of that accumulated tax revenue on K-12 education, with $117 million of it used to fund school construction projects.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the legalization of marijuana could create a staggering one million new jobs across the country over the next decade. "That includes workers at all ends of the marijuana supply chain, from farmers to transporters to sellers," the story says. That's a huge opportunity in an uncertain economic time. Imagine, in a state like ours, if we invested resources in developing an industrial hemp sector, along with a bustling new cannabis-driven retail economy? We need to lean into innovative thinking like this.

State revenue and economics aside, the reform of marijuana laws will lead to reform in our broken criminal justice system. Prohibition only fills up our jails and prisons for nonviolent crimes like possession. In fact, for example, 61% of all drug arrests in Wichita are for small amounts of marijuana. The racial disparities in arrests, sentences and jail time are deeply troubling -- 35% to 39% of all arrests in Wichita are African Americans, though African Americans make up only 11.5% of the city’s population.

The cost to the taxpayers of Kansas of enforcement, prosecution, court fees and jail for these nonviolent offenders is estimated at $20 million while the cost to those convicted is a lifetime prohibition on student loans, scholarships, and job opportunities. Rather than adding to the strain our prison system already feels, as illustrated by the recent prison riots, reforming marijuana laws would raise revenue for the training of law enforcement officers, lessen the problem of jail overcrowding and is the key to decreasing an unnecessary burden on our criminal justice system.

We in Kansas know that Trump's version of Brownback’s tax experiment is bound to do to the national economy what it did to ours. It makes sense for us to plan for the worst because we know what is coming.

Marijuana reform could be our light at the end of the tunnel.

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