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Legalize It—Don’t Overregulate It

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The future of legal marijuana is up for grabs: Politicians and entrepreneurs alike are stumbling over one another like bargain-hunters on Black Friday to get any piece of the action they can. But where does that leave you, the marijuana consumer? Do these people have your best interests at heart? And what are your best interests, anyway?

Responsible cannabis consumers want easy access to inexpensive, ethically produced marijuana that has been inspected for safety, as well as regulations to keep it from being sold to minors. They would also like the ability to cultivate the plant at home, if they choose. The one thing endangering these eminently reasonable goals is strict government control—the centerpiece of many of the proposed models for a legal marijuana market. A recent report, “Let It Grow: The Open Market Solution to Marijuana Control”—written by Jon Gettman, a policy adviser to High Times, and Michael Kennedy, the director of Trans-High Corporation and the High Times Growth Fund—finds that the best way to legalize marijuana is to create a free and open market that encourages competition and doesn’t limit its participants to an oligarchy chosen by the government.

“With respect to public policy,” Gettman and Kennedy argue, “the purpose of regulation should be to enhance protective factors and mitigate risk factors. These objectives should take precedence over other potential objectives, specifically maximizing tax revenue. The necessity of many regulatory measures is widely recognized. These include age and identification requirements for purchase, record-keeping, potential purchase limitations, advertising and marketing restrictions, health warnings and packaging requirements, and labeling standards.”

Marijuana is a hearty, fast-growing weed that can and eventually will be grown on tens of thousands of acres of American soil in the not-too-distant future. We’re not talking truffles here: The only thing that could prevent the price of pot from dropping to somewhere in the neighborhood of tea and avocados is the implementation of laws designed to maximize tax revenues first and foremost. This is referred to by Gettman and Kennedy as “the interventionist model.”

“The interventionist model is, in effect, a proposal that bureaucratic nonspecialists service a market of resentful consumers and successfully compete with an up-and-running, unregulated, and profitable illicit market. The idea that the solution to the ills of marijuana prohibition is to nationalize the market through a government takeover fails to take into account the very reasons for the existence of the problem it seeks to resolve.”

Gettman and Kennedy conclude that the only way to avoid a second, more insidious version of prohibition is by not overtaxing or overregulating legal pot. Decreasing the price of marijuana via an open and competitive market—one that is not stifled by excessive taxes or regulation—is the only way to eliminate the thriving black market. If legal marijuana retains its artificially inflated prohibition-era price, people will merely do what they have always done: grow it illegally for fun and profit.

“Because the cost of producing marijuana is relatively low,” Gettman and Kennedy argue, “whatever the fixed price of marijuana is”—meaning a price that is set by a government monopoly—“it will be undercut by illicit producers seeking profits. Consequently, black market opportunities will persist. Teenagers will continue to have access to marijuana through teen-to-teen sales and overall black market availability. Finally, consumers will not benefit from the consumer savings produced by a drop in the price of marijuana.”

Rather than banish current underground cultivators from the new legal market—as is currently the case in Washington state, where a limited number of growers’ permits have been issued—the scenario that Gettman and Kennedy propose would invite these clandestine growers to participate in the open market.

“The new regulated market must incorporate rather than replace production from the current market,” they insist. “Many current producers fear a corporate takeover of marijuana production that would force them out of the business. But if the objective of a regulated market is to eliminate or reduce the scope of the illegal market, there needs to be a place in the new market for old producers; otherwise they may continue production and undermine the regulated market in much the same way as they undermine prohibition. This argues against prohibiting individuals with convictions for marijuana production or distribution crimes from participating in the new, legalized market.”

It’s unreasonable to believe that the enormous population of underground growers, upon being excluded from the new legal market, will simply stop growing. In fact, in an overtaxed, over-regulated market for legal cannabis, these people will ultimately undermine the new market’s goals by continuing their trade. Just as high taxes on cigarettes in states like New York have created an illegal pipeline from low-tax states, the high taxation of marijuana will create a black market that will continue to require police enforcement—and this culture of neo-prohibition will become as big a failure as the current model.

Today, politicians and state agencies are dreaming of huge marijuana-tax windfalls, as though they should be rewarded for finally coming to their senses with regard to this plant. While High Times is delighted that pot prohibition is crumbling, we will not remain quiet while the same government that has enforced decades of violent marijuana prohibition now tries to profit as much as possible from its legalization. The marijuana consumer must be a vigilant participant in the process. No one wants to fumble this close to the end zone.

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