The marijuana middle-ground

So much sense in this German Lopez post on marijuana.  Of course the war on drugs approach to marijuana is a disaster, stupid, horrible, you name it.  Pretty much any policy would be better.  But that does not mean we should necessarily want full-on-genius-of-capitalism legalization.  Yes, marijuana is definitely less harmful than alcohol and most drugs, but as I’ve said before, less harmful does not mean not at all harmful.  Lopez (referencing the findings on use among HS kids I shared last week):

Some media outlets and advocates declared a victory for legalization with this data. TheWashington Post stated, “The case for marijuana legalization just got stronger.” The Marijuana Policy Project similarly claimed, “National survey on teen marijuana use debunks anti-legalization theories.”

I’m going to go a little more cautious and boring here: I think it’s way too early to say anything about the full effects of marijuana legalization. In fact, I think the surveys released so far are useless for judging legalization’s full effects…

But the less obvious — and more important — reason to be skeptical of the figures is that the primary concern with legalization won’t show up after a year, or even several years, of legalization. That concern is Big Marijuana — the idea that big companies will move into the marijuana industry after legalization, mass-produce and advertise their product as commercialization takes hold, and over time push America toward using more pot through easier access, lower prices, and a sexy, fun image.

True commercialization simply hasn’t happened — yet. Some pot businesses, particularly from Colorado and California, are branching out nationally to other places where it’s legal, but there’s no Anheuser-Busch or Philip Morris for cannabis so far. But fully legal pot is still really new — the first two states to legalize, Colorado and Washington, only allowed recreational sales last year. As legalization spreads and the industry grows, we almost certainly will see bigger companies take hold of the market.

As Mark Kleiman, a drug policy expert at New York University’s Marron Institute, often tells me, “The bad risks are mostly long-term. We’re in the situation in which the guy jumped off the Empire State Building, and as he passed the 42nd floor somebody said, ‘How’s it going?’ And he said, ‘So far, so good!'”

The major concern with full legalization is that big, for-profit companies will get into the marijuana industry and market the drug in ways that encourage widespread use and abuse. Take, for instance, Big Alcohol, which has successfully lobbied to block tax increases and regulations on alcohol — all while marketing its products as fun and sexy during television programs as big as the Super Bowl, which is seen by millions of people, including children.

“If we were a country with a history of being able to promote moderation in our consumer use of products, or promote responsible corporate advertising or no advertising, or if we had a history of being able to take taxes gained from a vice and redirect them into some positive areas, I might be less concerned about what I see happening in this country,” Kevin Sabet, the co-founder of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, told me in March. “But I think we have a horrible history of dealing with these kinds of things.”

And Lopez’s post (and my shared opinion) are not that this means we should never make marijuana legal.  Just be smart, cautious, and careful about it.

Despite the concerns surrounding commercialization, and even if it increases levels of pot use, it’s still entirely possible to support legalization. It’s a matter of weighing the pros and cons. And the downsides to not legalizing are definitely big — including more arrests each year over a comparatively mild drug, and more drug-related violence around the world…

So it’s certainly good for supporters of legalization that the latest surveys don’t show an increase in use for now. But if future, more useful surveys find an increase as a result of legalization and commercialization, it’s still possible that legalization could be a net good — it’s just a matter of weighing the good (fewer drug-related violence and arrests and more personal freedom) and the bad (potentially more use and abuse).

My short take– yes, marijuana should definitely be legal.  But under a fairly strict regulatory regime.  What that should look like, I don’t have  a firm opinion, but whatever convinces Mark Kleiman sounds good to me.

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