If a proposed ballot measure succeeds, California may become the third state to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes. By the state’s estimate, legalization would save the state hundreds of millions of dollars each year and generate about the same amount in new tax revenue.
Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office released a summary of the proposed ballot measure on Christmas Eve, breaking down the costs incurred by law enforcement, court proceedings, and prison maintenance. The Legislative Analyst and Director of Finance found that legalization would result in “reduced costs in the low hundreds of millions of dollars annually to state and local governments related to enforcing certain marijuana-related offenses, handling the related criminal cases in the court system, and incarcerating and supervising certain marijuana offenders.”
Newly legalized production and sale of marijuana would also rake in “net additional tax revenues in the low hundreds of millions of dollars annually.”
These fiscal benefits would undoubtedly be a boon to California, which has struggled with a massive deficit, a flailing public school system, and an overcrowded prison crisis. Drug offenders make up 31 percent of inmates in the state, and each inmate costs taxpayers about $47,000 per year.
Lawmakers in other states have pushed to legalize marijuana in part because of its potential revenue windfalls and cost-saving benefits. Washington expects to reap an extra $1.9 billion in revenue over the next five years thanks to legalization. The New York City Comptroller’s Office recently determined the city could bring in $400 million of revenue per year if marijuana were legalized. On the federal level, the nation could save at least $5.5 billion currently going to enforce marijuana laws each year.
California’s proposed ballot measure will need to gather 504,760 signatures by May 23 in order to appear on the 2014 ballot. If it reaches that benchmark, it has a good chance of passing; polls show a majority of California voters support full legalization and regulation of marijuana similar to alcohol.