COMMENTARY: How to avoid ‘dumb’ marijuana legalization

COMMENTARY: How to avoid ‘dumb’ marijuana legalization

The majority of Americans support the legalization of marijuana. Despite that fact, we spend about $1 billion annually to enforce prohibition. So a sensible person should accept that legalization is coming, and concentrate on preventing the larger harm, which is a bad system of legalization.

If we legalize alcohol-style we’ll get a big increase in consumption. The systems being put into place in Washington and Colorado roughly resemble those imposed on alcohol after Prohibition ended; we created a hugely lucrative commercial industry which has consolidated and used its lobbying muscle to further its objectives, which are precisely contrary to the public interest.

Making the same mistake with cannabis would be worse than prohibition. Despite their public relations positions, alcohol purveyors depend on active alcoholics to stay in business. Since 80 percent of alcohol sold is consumed by 20 percent of users, from the industry perspective substance abuse isn’t the problem; it’s the target demographic.

Commercial cannabis will be exactly the same. Creating a “big cannabis” industry will bring about marketing practices and lobbying agenda dedicated to creating and sustaining problem drug use, particularly among minors who are the future of the industry.

How to Avoid “Big Marijuana”

The trick to legalizing marijuana, then, is to frustrate the logic of the market, to interfere with its tendency to create and exploit people with substance abuse disorders. Price and information are the two major policy levers that could deter cannabis abuse. Marijuana is already cheap and will get cheaper under legalization. Taxes are one way to keep prices up, but without uniformity between states, taxes will foster interstate smuggling, as the tobacco markets illustrate. Only a federal system will solve the smuggling problem. But government can require potency disclosure and product labeling as well as outreach to prevent both drug abuse and impaired driving.

To prevent “big marijuana” from having its corporate thumb on the public policy scale, we could require that cannabis be sold only through nonprofits, but the most effective system is state-run retail stores.

There’s plenty of precedent for this: Utah, Pennsylvania and Alabama restrict hard liquor sales to state operated or state-controlled outlets, and operationally they work fine. A “state store” system would also allow the states to control the pot supply chain. By contracting with many small growers, rather than a few giant ones, states could check the industry’s political power (concentrated industries are almost always more effective at lobbying than those comprised of many small companies) and maintain consumer choice by avoiding a beer-like oligopoly offering virtually interchangeable products.

The time to act at the national level is now. The state-by-state process is getting us locked in to the wrong model; once there are billions of dollars a year of pot being commercially sold under state-level legalization, it will be virtually impossible to put them out of business.

To avoid getting locked into bad policies, lawmakers in Washington need to act, and quickly. Despite public opinion against cannabis prohibition, no national-level figure of any standing has been willing to speak out for change. That’s unlikely to last. Soon enough, candidates for president are going to be asked their positions on marijuana legalization. They’re going to need a good answer. I suggest something like this: “I’m not against all legalization; I’m against dumb legalization.”


Mark Kleiman is Professor of Public Policy in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, where he teaches methods of policy analysis, crime control, and drug policy. He is the editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis, the organizer of the group blog called The Reality-Based Community ( and a member of the Committee on Law and Justice of the National Research Council.  


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  1. It would be very good if all this energy was applied to the criminalization of alcohol which is man-made and responsible for so many acts of violent behavior and loss of life over the years.....Free the herb, it was never meant to be governed by man!!


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