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.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

8 Responses to The marijuana middle-ground

  1. Jon K says:

    Can’t they pass restrictions on legal marijuana that makes it impossible for it to be advertised? We have pretty much done that for tobacco. To me, I just don’t see how legal pot could really be a bad thing. It isn’t physically addictive, doesn’t result in impairment like alcohol, and isn’t linked to any long-term health risks like cancer or heart disease. I do think it should be off-limits for kids (although we all know how well that works for booze), but I don’t see how keeping it unregulated and only available through illicit networks is a good thing. It isn’t good from a law and order perspective. It isn’t good from a tax perspective. It isn’t good from a liberty and freedom perspective. The current policy only encourages law enforcement abuses (I’m thinking of recent 60 minutes on this one).

    When heroin and other opiates are killing more and more middle-class Americans, why would we continue to focus on a drug that never kills anyone, doesn’t cause physical dependency, doesn’t lead to increases in domestic violence, and is widely available anyway? I think prohibition on any drug is bad policy and just leads to more crime, more addicts, and more law enforcement corruption, but I think this is so obvious in the case of marijuana that it should be a no-brainer.

    • Steve Greene says:

      I don’t disagree with you but but for 1%. Some adults do have a problematic marijuana dependency (though, they might be alcoholics otherwise) and we really have enough research to know we need to keep it away from developing brains.

      • Jon K says:

        I agree with you about developing brains, but those developing brains are going to seek it out anyway. I agree that some people do develop problematic marijuana dependency, but I would argue that anything that gives an individual pleasure has the potential of becoming an addiction. We don’t ban shopping, porn, or Golden Corral even though a segment of society will become addicted to indulging themselves to their detriment.

        Every time I am in my local gas station and I see obviously very poor people throwing large sums of money away on video poker machines and lottery tickets I am reminded of that. (The lottery makes me mad because it is the government that is taking advantage of those most vulnerable on purpose. And they get to advertise on TV!)

    • rgbact says:

      Not addictive, eh? Must be the wonder drug. Never heard of a non-addictive drug, but evidently liberals tell us MJ is it. It may literally be the 1st human vice that people son’t abuse. Its amazing. Its less addictive than Krispy Kreme donuts! Now those need to be banned.

      • Jon K says:

        I said not physically addictive. Take away an alcoholics booze, a junkie’s smack, or a smoker’s cigarettes. They will have physical withdrawal symptoms.

        Take away a daily pot smoker’s pot and they may miss it, but it’s not even in the same ball park. You don’t have to believe me but I know what I am talking about.

  2. Jon K says:

    I was thinking about addiction and dependency today. Are all chemical dependencies automatically a problem?

    For example, I am dependent on large doses of stimulants and my other narcolepsy medicine. I’m positive that my body has adjusted to these medicines and I would have serious withdrawal sickness if I stop taking any of it. I learned this first hand when my insurance company played games with one of my medicines in September and I thought my supply might be disrupted. The thought of that disruption made me have physical reactions that essentially ruined an entire week. Similarly, I am addicted to nicotine. I now get it from vapor – which eliminates the cancer risk. For me, nicotine is a mild stimulant that helps with my narcolepsy symptoms. So, should I view my nicotine addiction as a negative? Even though it helps me, and I use it in the least dangerous manner possible?

    That brings me to marijuana. If an adult is a daily user of marijuana one could say they have a dependency. Is that necessarily a bad thing? If it doesn’t impair an individual’s ability to function at work, meet personal obligations, or really impact anyone except the individual who uses it is that necessarily a bad thing? What if it helps them tamp down negative thinking and cognitive distortions? If it is doing that how is it different than Prozac or Xanax?

    • Steve Greene says:

      Excellent points. My understanding is that a non-trivial number of adult marijuana users end up with negative dependencies, where it clearly does more harm than good to their lives.

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