Alcohol and tobacco products are legal for those old enough to buy them. Alcohol and tobacco products produce wealth, business opportunities and employment. Alcohol and tobacco produce significant tax revenues for states and the federal government. Legal marijuana will do the same.

So, why not legalize marijuana and enjoy the economic benefits it will produce despite the health and social costs legal marijuana will create?

Wisconsin and other states have concluded the benefits from legal tobacco and alcohol are more desirable than the health and social downsides they create. The truth of this claim can be supported by the following facts in Wisconsin we are living with and not challenging with any public visibility:

• 15,000 deaths a decade from alcohol with 60,000 grieving family members
• 77,000 deaths a decade from tobacco with more than 308,000 grieving family members
• Burden from Wisconsin’s excessive drinking - $6.8 billion/year
• Burden from tobacco - $4.5 billion/year
• Tax revenues from alcohol sales - $53 million/year
• Tax revenues from tobacco sales - $500 million/year.
(Ten times the sales taxes from tobacco than from alcohol when only 20% of Wisconsin smoke compared to 70% that drink alcohol – really?)
• Wisconsin government investment in alcohol harm reduction services - $3.5 million/year
• Wisconsin government in tobacco harm reduction services - $.5.3 million/year

What kind of a deal is this for the people of Wisconsin? Yes, we want the freedom to use legal products if we are old enough and can pay for them. But, do we really understand the trade-offs?

We are investing a pittance from the massive tax revenues we collect to reduce harm from the sale of these two legal products. Our state’s harm reduction budgets designed to provide prevention; treatment, recovery and control policies are woefully inadequate. We seem to be okay with looking the other way while this annual imbalance is as predictable as the sunrise.

If this is true for alcohol and tobacco, will it be any different when marijuana becomes legal? Now that Colorado is taxing the sale of recreational marijuana do we really think this will not happen in Wisconsin? Those supporting legalization of marijuana have made considerable progress. It will no doubt start with medical marijuana, but will soon include recreational “pot” as a revenue-strapped government considers the funds that can be obtained from legal marijuana taxes.

Will powerful business interests like the tobacco and alcohol industries miss out on the pending $billion profits from legal marijuana? We know their histories? Who will buy up the small marijuana entrepreneurs pioneering this new product line? Who already has fully established distribution systems ready to add legal “pot?”

Should we continue to prohibit marijuana? Should we try prohibition with alcohol and tobacco again? These are not solutions with any chance of success in Wisconsin or anywhere in the USA. Personal freedom is too powerful a principle to be challenged in our current political reality.

What should we do?

If we choose to allow the freedom to market and use alcohol and tobacco as the legal products they are, we need to change the funding formula we use to deal with the known downsides from these products. We need to fund the evidence-based public health and control practices that reduce the damage from these products at levels recommended by our best minds in public health and safety. Wisconsin gets an F from the American Lung Association when it comes to our tobacco prevention and control services. We deserve to get A’s not F’s. We collect enough sales taxes to fund appropriate tobacco and alcohol services to achieve better results.

If we do legalize marijuana as another drug we tolerate, we need to use the new formula for providing the health and other services legal marijuana will produce in our communities. We need to do this and make the commitment to fund the health and remedial services before we legalize marijuana. We didn’t do this when Wisconsin legalized gambling. We need to do it this time.

We need to be suspicious of anyone that tells us marijuana is a harmless, natural substance that will not cause major problems. It isn’t. We will have to pay for the negative, downsides from another legal, addicting drug expertly marketed by business interests that will soon create a new bonanza of profits for investors and entrepreneurs.

Legal alcohol and tobacco are costing Wisconsin $11.3 billion a year. How many billion will legal marijuana cost? Ask our elected representatives.

David “Mac” Macmaster