Since 2013, Washington State and Colorado have been attempting to create “something the modern world has never seen: a fully legal commercial market in cannabis.” The drug marijuana has been contraband for so long; it’s hard to imagine what legalization might look like.
The chief advisor to Washington State’s legalization framework is a U.C.L.A. drug policy expert named Mark Kleimen. Kleimen, who writes a blog for the “reality-based community” at samefacts.org, said in 2002 that he was opposed to marijuana legalization. As the author of this article remembers the conversation:
Sure, he said, the government should remove penalties for possession, use and cultivation of small amounts. He did not favor making outlaws of people for enjoying a drug that is less injurious than alcohol or tobacco. But he worried that a robust commercial marketplace would inevitably lead to much more consumption.
Kleimen is now more open to legalization, but he still believes that marijuana can be harmful. However, he admits, “At some point you have to say, a law that people don’t obey is a bad law.”
So now two states have eliminated their oft-ignored laws against marijuana, and several more states are joining the conversation. But legalization is a complicated process. The state needs to decide everything that it wants to allow in the marijuana market. To what extent can a pot seller advertise? What kind of labeling does pot need? What about other products that might contain pot, from candy to fast food? To what extent can private citizens grow their own plants? Will they need a license? The answers to these questions will lead to a very different kind of marketplace for marijuana. Regulators need to be able to predict how consumers and producers will respond to their rules, but they also need to decide what kind of marketplace they’re looking to build in the first place.
The goal, regulators say, is “to avoid the shortcomings of other markets in legal vices—tobacco, alcohol, gambling—that lurched into being without much forethought, and have supplied, along with much pleasure, much misery.”
One draw of legal marijuana is the tax revenue created by a brand-new industry, yet even this potential benefit has its concerns: “It’s the same tactic used to win public approval of lotteries—and with the same danger: that some worthy government function comes to depend on creating more addicts.”
There are many legal products which society considers “vices”, from tobacco to pornography, from sugary drinks to violent movies. Many people feel that these goods aren’t exactly good things, but neither do they believe they should be against the law. The restrictions on such disapproved-of items can vary widely from state to state.
One irritation regulators face is that the longstanding illegality of marijuana has led to a scarcity of research on the drug’s effects. There is little scientific consensus on what exactly marijuana does to the brain, because the majors funders of such research (like the federal government) have avoided the question.
The last thing marijuana regulators want to see is for pot to become big business. The worst-case scenario would be a large corporation with a strong motivation to get more people using their product:
One practical challenge facing the legalization pioneers is how to keep the marijuana market from being swallowed by a few big profiteers—the pot equivalent of Big Tobacco, or even the actual tobacco industry—a powerful oligopoly with every incentive to turn us into a nation of stoners. There is nothing inherently evil about the profit motive, but there is evidence that pot dealers, like purveyors of alcohol, get the bulk of their profit from those who use the product to excess. “When you get a for-profit producer or distributor industry going, their incentives are to increase sales,” said Jonathan Caulkins of Carnegie Mellon, another member of the Washington consulting team. “And the vast majority of sales go to people who are daily or near-daily consumers.”
Regulators say they would prefer a more fragmented marketplace, more like the wine industry.
In Colorado and Washington, these are serious questions for consumers, entrepreneurs and concerned citizens, and it remains to be seen what kinds of markets will appear.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Do you think marijuana should be legal? Why or why not?
- What do you think are the harmful effects of marijuana (if any)? What do you think would be the best way to minimalize these concerns for legal marijuana?
- Do you think that using marijuana in moderation can be a good thing? In comparison, many people who drink alcohol in moderation don’t consider it to be a vice. Do you think there are certain contexts in which marijuana use should be encouraged?
The legalization of marijuana is a dramatic change in policy for a very commonly-used item. For users of the drug and for people concerned about its use, as well as for people who are interested in seeing how the economy works, the creation of new drug laws is fascinating to watch.
© 2017 CYS