WDAY: The News Leader

Published February 18, 2014, 08:39 PM

Marijuana advocates predict complete legalization in a decade

Fargo, N.D. (WDAY TV) -Medical Marijuana cleared the Minnesota State Legislature in 2009 but was met with a veto.

By: Drew Trafton, WDAY

Fargo, N.D. (WDAY TV) - Medical Marijuana cleared the Minnesota State Legislature in 2009, but was met with a veto. Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton said last month that any of the three current bills that have potential to reach his desk this session would also be stopped in their tracks.

Marijuana advocates are confident the drug won't only be available medically, but also for recreational use within a decade in Minnesota and the rest of the nation. Some of that confidence stems from the fact that for the first time ever, Gallup polling shows more than half of Americans are in favor of outright legalization.

But it's more than public support driving this issue. From a social standpoint, marijuana remains sticky.

Gayle Lee, Undecided About Legalization: "I don't like the idea of stoners driving around while they're texting. So, it's a public safety thing."

Governor Mark Dayton seems to agree, equating it to alcohol and asking, "Why add another drug to the equation?"

On the flip side, President Obama said last month he believes it less dangerous. Prompting many to ask, "Why not legalize it?"

Advocates, like Morgan Fox with the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, say another voice speaks loudly in their favor and it's one that may change minds on the issue: Cold, hard cash.

Morgan Fox - Marijuana Public Policy Project: "Well, the market has always been there. I mean, people have continued to use marijuana pretty heavily, regardless of the presence of a legal or illicit market."

Now, the legal market is starting to take shape. Colorado passed recreational marijuana in 2012 and recently became the first state to open storefronts. Colorado also ranks right behind Minnesota in terms of population, indicating potential market size similarities. Tax revenue in the first month of sales in Colorado generated more than $1 million.

A Harvard University economist, Jeff Miron, estimates that the federal government would conservatively pull in $8.7 annually in tax revenue alone in a nationwide legal market, and says another $8.7 billion could be saved in enforcement costs. That potential windfall trickles down to states.

Danica Scheef - Legalization Supporter: "I think if it was legal, it would help a lot with not having so many issues with the police."

According to FBI statistics, $95 million a year are spent enforcing marijuana laws in Minnesota. Putting a total conservative estimate of economic benefit to the state at over $107 million a year.

Although that number may not entice politicians here, it's certainly attracting them in states like Rhode Island and Alaska; states that are now considering legalizing the drug. Fox says his group believes once a few dominoes fall, the rest will follow.

Morgan Fox: "I think that between now and 2017, we're probably looking at seeing another 10 states make marijuana legal. Maybe even as many as 13."

The Marijuana Policy Project says for outright legalization, the year 2019 seems realistic.

If you're curious about what North Dakota's economic market would be, it has been established to give a good indicator of tax revenue, but it would save nearly $4 million in enforcement costs.