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Reefer Madness
California’s Bread-and-Circuses Weed Initiative

Moderate marijuana guru Mark Kleiman—who supports a cautious “grow-your-own” pot decriminalization policy—has harsh words for California’s likely-to-be-approved ballot initiative that he says would dramatically increase the availability of marijuana, give the industry a free hand, and likely increase the prevalence of drug dependency among the small minority of users who would consume the vast majority of newly-legal pot:

All of those provisions favor the expansion of the market at the expense of public health. Unlimited production guarantees that farmgate prices will settle down at something below $1 per gram; add to that 33 cents in excise and a 15% sales tax, and the result will be prices substantially lower than those in Washington State, where some stores now offer highly potent cannabis (claimed to be 18% THC by weight) for $95/ounce. That’s less, in inflation-adjusted terms, than my college classmates were paying around 1970. And today’s material is about 4-6 times as strong as what they were buying then. […]

At current national average pricing – about three times the “Budget Bud” level – the rate of cannabis use disorder has already soared. […]

If someone wanted to write a law to increase the prevalence of that problem, it would look a lot like the Adult Use of Marijuana Act. In other words, this is horrible, awful, very bad, no-good drug policy.

Some degree of loosening of marijuana restrictions still seems to us like the worst policy except all others. But as Kleiman and his colleagues have argued at length in these pages, the binary choice between “legal” and “illegal” weed is a false one. There are a million different ways that marijuana, like any other drug, can be distributed, taxed, and regulated. It’s possible to construct policies that mitigate the drug war’s excesses without essentially promoting dependency and all the deeply destructive social trends that go along with it.

Many of the wealthy San Francisco liberals supporting the ballot measure surely presume that most of the legal weed in the Golden State will be consumed casually by well-adjusted, high-functioning bon vivants such as themselves. In fact, most of the evidence suggests that demand will be concentrated among a small subset of heavy users who are high several hours each day, and whose lives are seriously disrupted by the drug. Rational weed deregulation policy would take these public health effects into account and try to address them; California’s ballot initiative does not.

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  • QET

    ” But as Kleiman and his colleagues have argued at length in these pages, the binary choice between “legal” and “illegal” weed is a false one. There are a million different ways that marijuana, like any other drug, can be distributed, taxed, and regulated. It’s possible to construct policies that mitigate the drug war’s excesses without essentially promoting dependency and all the deeply destructive social trends that go along with it”

    Sure it is. Experts. Licensing. Construct policies. Rational. Yeah, that’s the ticket. I can remember the days before alcohol was rationally regulated and licensed and taxed by smart policies constructed by experts. People–the wrong sorts of people, mind you, the small subset of heavy drinkers who are drunk several hours each day–would get drunk, beat their children, ruin their health, crash their cars, have sex they later regretted, and ruin their and other lives. But today? Thankfully that’s all in the past.

    • FriendlyGoat

      A moral public would milk cannabis for its medical uses delivered at the lowest possible cost to patients and would refuse to be shareholders (by taxing weed) in the self-destruction associated with heavy “recreational” use. Many states seem to want to do the exact opposite. Wow, a new cash cow, they crow. What we should be doing is taxing the heck out of the net income from the weed business and not taxing the transactions at all. If fact, that’s a good approach for nearly everything.

      • QET

        Well this is the old argument, isn’t it. Weed is already prevalent, despite being prohibited. So why not convert some of that regulatory-independent demand into some pubic benefit? I presume one element of TAI’s desired “smart policy” would be to make legal weed, through a combination of taxation and other financial burdens, just as expensive as it is today–no more and no less. If that occurs, then the question is whether the mere legality encourages greater consumption. I’m not sure it does. And I trust you already know that the businesses will simply pass the taxes on them along to their customers, so you don’t avoid taxing the users no matter how you set it up.

        • FriendlyGoat

          I would FAR rather tax the users of alcohol, tobacco, and “recreational” marijuana through income taxes on the net incomes of the makers/sellers than through taxes on the sales transactions. There is actually a huge difference and the pass-along effect of those two types of taxes are NOT the same at all. We should be taxing those who would make a buck off of the negative effects of these products, not directly taxing the addicted for state revenue.

          • Josephbleau

            I would really like to understand the distinction you make in taxation schemes. If there are three parties; the buyer, the seller, and the government, what the one gets the other two do not. Would not the seller raise the price to cover his taxes making the buyer pay for the governments share? Sellers as a group always charge what the market will bear. The problem is that there are already established smugglers who can cut price by not paying the government anything. The legal pot market is based on the indulgence of not being arrested, that is the value added. Many people will buy illegal even if there is a legal pot scheme because they don’t think they will be arrested or don’t care. If the government passes an amendment that said they could arrest you if you did not pay them money then you would pay them, hey? Unless you thought you could get away with it.

          • FriendlyGoat

            I’ll admit that I am making a bit of a theoretical argument here, with gaps in practicality. It’s infinitely easier to slap sales taxes and excise taxes on the so-called sin products and do the accounting and collection from the transactions. To me, though, this puts the public in the morally indefensible position of happily profiting from the sale of products which many or most people believe are harmful in excess. We know that the lion’s share of liquor is sold to dangerously-heavy drinkers. We seem to be learning that most of the recreational weed is going to be smoked in excess by potheads. We should not be too happy about profiting from the downfall consequences to those customers. When we tax the profits of the profiteers in those products rather than merely take a “cut” from each sale, it seems to me we are taking a more morally-consistent position.

            Big Tobacco is still making too much money to reconcile with what are considered to be the ill effects of smoking on the customers. It’s said that the same companies of Big Tobacco have plans to expand to Big Weed as well if the laws are eventually aligned to permit them to operate as they would like. For both those companies AND governments to be licking their chops at the prospect of selling a huge new addictive behavior, it should at least call to mind, “Is this right”?

    • ljgude

      I’m not sure if you are saying you remember prohibition or just the good old days I remember in the 50s when badly weaving people and cars were a common sight and my dad took me to the Bowery when I was about 12 to see the bums disporting themselves on the pavement. . He then told me how the cops came by in the morning and gave them a stiff whack with their Billy clubs of the soles of their shoes to see if they were alive or dead and then he pointed out those among the ambulatory who walked in a distinctive manner having lost feeling in their feet because they suffered from tertiary syphilis. I have since surmised that my dad favored teaching by example. Of course I agree with you that all that has changed and we no longer have drunken bums. Instead we have Homeless Persons with Dual Diagnosis. My dad would be surprised to discover that just meant people who were drunks or worse and crazy too. Don’t get me wrong QET – your irony set me right off but I am not trolling you – I’m agreeing with you. To be straightforward for a moment I think drunkenness has changed on the surface since the good old days.. Then it was regarded as common failing and a bit of a lark but now it is constantly shamed so we don’t see it as much, but as you imply, it is there all the same.

      • QET

        In fact I was attempting sarcasm. But your point about shaming is important, suggesting as it does that real change lies beyond the expert’s office. And alcoholism and its ravages are still common enough, despite all of the rational policy. The report TAI quotes complains about pricing but there is plenty of cheap, strong liquor available. So my reaction is to resist the kind of regulatory regime that the word “policy” implies here, as I believe its real efficacy will be nil but once in place, it will exert all its might to remain in place and to expand its charter. Right now, of all the things we need in our polity, a new or expanded regulatory regime is not one of them. There is no problem today that can be effectively addressed through a new or expanded government apparatus.

        • ljgude

          I’m happy with sarcasm – yours and mine – and I did appreciate yours.I agree that much talk of “policy” is really a blind to impose regulation which causes me to notice that one of the great contributions to addiction self help – the 12 step programs – recognise a human behavior they call codependence. I suspect that a lot of government intervention to solve problems is just another form of codependence and therefore an integral part of the social pathologies it seeks to address, not a solution. I think they are easy to identify over time. Look for programs that don’t work but go on an on. .

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