The Virtue of Quasi-Legal Status for Marijuana


Speaking of marijuana legalization polls, the question of course arises as to whether we should legalize pot. On this, I’ve come to stand with Mark Kleiman who conveniently repeated his gospel yesterday:

Substantively, I’m not a big fan of legalization on the alcohol model; a legal pot industry, like the legal booze and gambling industries, would depend for the bulk of its sales on excessive use, which would provide a strong incentive for the marketing effort to aim at creating and maintaining addiction. (Cannabis abuse is somewhat less common, and tends to be somewhat less long-lasting, than alcohol abuse, and the physiological and behavioral effects tend to be less dramatic, but about 11% of those who smoke a fifth lifetime joint go on to a period of heavy daily use measured in months.) So I’d expect outright legalization to lead to a substantial increase in the prevalence of cannabis-related drug abuse disorder: I’d regard an increase of only 50% as a pleasant surprise, and if I had to guess I’d guess at something like a doubling.

So I continue to favor a “grow your own” policy, under which it would be legal to grow, possess, and use cannabis and to give it away, but illegal to sell it. Of course there would be sales, and law enforcement agencies would properly mostly ignore those sales. But there wouldn’t be billboards.

That beautifully-crafted policy has only two major defects that I’m aware of: it wouldn’t create tax revenue, and no one but me supports it. On the drug-warrior side of the argument, even those who can read the handwriting on the wall won’t dare to deviate from the orthodoxy. As we did with alcohol, the country will lurch from one bad policy (prohibition) to another (commercial legalization). I just hope the sellers are required to measure the cannabinoid profiles of their products and put those measurements on the label.

I support it too! But if it is true that we need to choose between the current regime and an alcohol-style regime, I would certainly prefer commercial legalization. The public health harms would be real, but they’d be more than offset by the benefits—gains to non-abusive users, increased tax revenues that could fund worthwhile endeavors, resources currently devoted to a senseless criminalization scheme could be repurposed. This would also be an area in which America’s tradition of federalism and localism could be put to good use. In many parts of the country, people probably wouldn’t want to see any pot stores or “coffee shops” and they could, presumably, decline to license any even if federal law permitted such licenses in general.