Mark Kleiman once again lays out his “grow-your-own” idea for legalizing marijuana use while keeping the sale of the drug illegal. This is an argument he’s made before, and one in which I’ve written about my disagreements.
This time around, E.D. Kain at Balloon Juice does a superb job of addressing the shortcomings of Kleiman’s proposal. I don’t really have anything to add to what Kain wrote (or to Pete Guither’s long post here). Yet I noticed today that Adam Serwer, an excellent blogger on civil liberties, attempts to defend Kleiman’s idea:
E.D. Kain doesn’t like the idea, and prefers outright legalization and commercialization:
Furthermore, I’m much more afraid of violent drug dealers, over-eager SWAT teams, and the whole awful black market cycle of violence than I am about the lobbying arms of a few big corporations which apparently fill Kleiman with fear. I’ll take lobbyists over drug cartels any day.
I think Kain is missing at least part of Kleiman’s point. The whole idea behind decriminalizing marijuana possession is to eliminate the “black market cycle of violence”; since people wouldn’t necessarily be dependent on dealers, dealers would have a hard time plying a lucrative trade, and paramilitary SWAT teams wouldn’t be shooting dogs and old ladies trying to get at the hidden cannabis stash of a 72 year-old with cataracts.
And I think Serwer isn’t quite grasping Kain’s point. To clarify, I’m assuming that Serwer is talking about more than just decriminalizing possession here (which was already done back in the 1970s in a number of states and won at the ballot box in Massachusetts in 2008 with nearly 2/3 of the vote); he’s talking about fully legalizing the ability for someone to grow marijuana on their own – or as part of a co-op. Serwer thinks that this would put the drug dealers out of business. Kain is arguing (correctly, in my opinion) that it won’t.
As Kain points out, you will still have large numbers of marijuana consumers who have little interest in growing their own or being part of a co-op. They simply want to buy their marijuana like any other product and they’ll prefer to buy it from a grower who knows how to produce a quality product. On the flip side of that, there will always be people who see growing marijuana as their preferred avenue for making money and will become very good at it. These two forces simply won’t be outweighed by armies of marijuana consumers being proactive in order to comply with the law. This should be obvious. In the end, sales of the drug will still occur, and law enforcement will still be tasked with stopping it. And as long as that combination exists, we’ll still see paramilitary SWAT teams shooting dogs and old ladies because the police thought that they were going after an illegal seller.
Second, while I’m not quite sure where I stand on the choice between legalization and criminalization, I do think that marijuana abuse is a relatively minor problem. I’d like to preserve that status quo while eliminating the draconian penalties and absurd amount of law-enforcement resources devoted to preventing people from toking. But I think Kain is being a bit to dismissive in arguing that there would be no adverse consequences from the mass marketing of marijuana. It seems entirely possible to me that commercializing the drug could create a problem where none really exists — businesses have to make a profit; someone growing their own doesn’t. A world where a smaller, less profitable illicit market that continues to exist looks a lot like our own without the outsize penalties and adverse consequences of over-enforcement. I’m not sure what a world with a fully commercialized marijuana industry that profits from turning people into potheads looks like, but it makes me nervous.
We currently have a commercialized alcohol industry that profits from turning people into alcoholics, and we’ve grown quite accustomed to it. Hell, it’s impossible for me to go through a single day where I’m not exposed to some form of marketing for booze. Despite this barrage, and despite the relatively non-minor problems caused by alcohol (car accidents, domestic violence, liver disease, alcoholism), people in this country remain far more concerned about Muslims building swimming pools in Lower Manhattan than they do about alcohol.
I completely agree that a legalized marijuana market could lead to companies engaging in bad behavior. I’m rather certain it would happen. But there are ways to deal with that other than by resorting to an unrealistic prohibition-lite. You could make laws against advertising. You could even have the state control the distribution. Either of those proposals are far superior to continuing to enforce a ban on the sale of the drug.