Ever since the whole Michael Phelps weed smoking non-story came out, I’ve been meaning to write about decriminalization of weed. Atlantic writer/blogger Andrew Sullivan made several good points about the whole thing, the most salient being that people don’t really care about marijuana use anymore – among young people it is a fact of life these days. Sullivan brought up casual, non plot-related smoking in the new Friday the 13th movie, but marijuana is present (if not in the forefront) of a ton of movies outside of the limited fright flick category: the Harold and Kumar series, Pineapple Express, the Big Lebowski, and many more that I’d know of if I actually watched movies. And those movies are not just catering to the stoner crowd, they’re major productions (and at least those mentioned are pretty hilarious) that have major stars that a ton of people go to see. The cops may provide a good foil in those movies, but we the audience have no problem rooting for the toking up protagonists. Why these movies fly with contemporary Americans, in my opinion, is that we all know that weed smoking is pretty benign; we know that it may be addictive but disastrously so, we know it is less dangerous to your lungs than smoking cigarettes (and certainly less addictive), and we’ve seen that getting high using marijuana vs. “harder” drugs like narcotics is like comparing (mellow) apples and (distinctively un-mellow) oranges. We smoke ourselves, or our friends do, if not our bosses and parents. Among successful young professionals marijuana use is common, and I’d venture that that same demographic probably sees it as less “dangerous,” especially when it comes down to addiction, than alcohol – whereas everyone has a story about when he/a friend almost died thanks to beer and booze, the equivalent pot story goes more along the lines of “I was so high that I sat on a couch alone and felt pretty bad for a while.” Marijuana use is a social fact in this generation and the last, and it really doesn’t make sense to me to keep spending resources on the federal, state, and local levels pursuing marijuana-related lawbreaking.
So what to do? Matt Yglesias cites a post by Mark Kleinman, and between the two of them come up with a pretty reasonable plan. Kleinman prefers 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.
As in, there would be no alcohol-style commercialization of the drug, with extensive advertising by big business. Yglesias agrees, but notes that if
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.
I believe that both plans are far better than what we’ve got now (and think the grow-your-own decriminalization would probably be healthier in the long-term). Although I can’t quite bring myself to issue such certainties as Yglesias’ “the public health harms would… be more than offset by the benefits,” I’m pretty sure that he’s right, if not because the current regime is pretty dismal. A CNBC article estimates that the illegal domestic marijuana industry brings in up to $10 billon a year, and runs with all the unsavory trappings (violence, racketeering) of the black market. Legalization wouldn’t destroy the black market, but it greatly decrease its size by allowing growers and perhaps sellers to enlist protection from and have competition monitored by the government, rather than thugs with AK-47s and brass knuckles. In exchange, the government would tax the industry, probably at a high rate to cover potential health care costs. All said, the price of weed would most likely drop, much to the benefit of responsible consumers and further crippling the black market. All the while, the burden on police (federal and local), the justice system, and prisons would decrease, allowing those institutions to dedicate their time and resources (an estimated “7.5 – 10 billion dollars”) to prevention and prosecution of more harmful illegal activities.
There’s certainly a lot to write about on this topic, and several well-reputed groups make it there job to do so (and do it way better than me). And if anyone out there has a good rebuttal as to why we should not reform marijuana laws, let me know – I really can only think of the health issues, but as far as I know they really aren’t that deleterious, and I don’t see them outweighing the loss of personal freedoms of cannabis prohibition. Until then, we will have to live with the media (and Kellogg’s) telling us that because Michael Phelps took a hit at a party, he’s all of a sudden not the greatest swimmer in the world, and no longer a national athletic hero. And those stupid ads – jeezus.