Friday, April 20, 2018
Because of the date on the calendar, there is today waaaaaay too much mainstream press coverage of marijuana issues for me to cover in this space. But I cannot ignore it all, and the headline of this post is the headline of this new Atlantic piece by Reihan Salam that seemed worth spotlighting. Here is how it starts and its core proposal:
The marijuana wars are entering a new phase. The first phase, over whether or not to legalize the recreational use of cannabis, is over. The partisans of legalization have won the battle for public opinion. Soon, I suspect, marijuana legalization will be entrenched in federal law. At this point, to fight against legalization is to fight against the inevitable. The only question now is what form America’s legal marijuana markets will take. Will they be dominated by for-profit business enterprises with a vested interest in promoting binge consumption? Or will they be designed to minimize the very real harms caused by cannabis dependence, even if that means minting fewer marijuana millionaires? I fear that the burgeoning cannabis industry will win out—but their victory is not yet assured....
The fundamental challenge, as [Jonathan] Caulkins argues, is that cannabis is a dependence-inducing intoxicant, and a cheap one at that. In Washington state, a marijuana-legalization pioneer, he observes that the cost per hour of cannabis intoxication “has fallen below $1, cheaper than beer or going to the movies.” This is despite the fact that the state’s marijuana growers and distributors operate in a grey zone — legal at the state level, but not legal at the federal level — which leaves them ineligible for the federal tax deductions to which all more straightforwardly legal businesses are entitled.
If marijuana were largely consumed by adults who partake rarely and responsibly, this would not be much of a concern. According to Caulkins, though, only about one in three cannabis users fall into this fortunate category, and they account for no more than 2 percent of total consumption. Meanwhile, daily and near-daily users account for 80 percent of total consumption, and a far larger share of the profits of your friendly neighborhood marijuana business. Yes, there are cancer patients who use regularly marijuana to ease their pain, and there are traumatized veterans who do much the same. I am happy to concede that cannabis abuse is preferable to opioid abuse. But let’s not kid ourselves: Marijuana, Inc., thrives by catering to binge users, many of whom explicitly state that their dependence is getting in the way of their lives. By the time the cost of an hour of cannabis intoxication falls below $1 nationwide, the picture will start to change: The number of people who will turn to marijuana as a form of self-medication, or as a form of escape, will drastically increase. And most of them will be poor and vulnerable people, not the affluent bohemians so affectionately portrayed on HBO dramedies.
In a 2014 essay for Washington Monthly, Mark A.R. Kleiman, who along with Caulkins is one of the country’s leading experts on drug policy, anticipated the outsized role the marijuana industry would play in debates to come: “As more and more states begin to legalize marijuana over the next few years, the cannabis industry will begin to get richer—and that means it will start to wield considerably more political power, not only over the states but over national policy, too.” As a result, he warned, “we could get locked into a bad system in which the primary downside of legalizing pot — increased drug abuse, especially by minors — will be greater than it needs to be, and the benefits, including tax revenues, smaller than they could be.”
Is it possible to legalize marijuana without drastically increasing the number of Americans who find themselves dependent on it? I certainly hope so. In my ideal world, Congess would establish a federal monopoly on the sale and distribution of narcotics, including but not limited to cannabis, with an eye towards minimizing the size of the black market and avoiding the aggressive marketing and lobbying that would inevitably accompany the emergence of a large for-profit industry. But I recognize that this is, for now, a pipe dream.