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Pot Policy: Marijuana Users as Consumers

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For decades most marijuana users have looked forward with hope to the day when cannabis would be legalized. In many respects legalization has had a singular meaning – they could use marijuana without being threatened with arrest or other criminal sanctions.

Now that marijuana has been legalized in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and the city of Washington, D.C. marijuana users are getting accustomed to a new dimension of legalization.  No longer criminals marijuana users are now consumers – as in customers, served by a market, and potentially protected from exploitation by public regulations. This is also true for a limited number of medical marijuana users throughout the United States.

This is going to take a little getting used to, especially by those marijuana users who have not yet benefited from changes in local laws. The most important issue for these folks remains ending criminal penalties for marijuana use, possession, sales, and distribution. In other words, the fight for legalization still has a long way to go.

Nonetheless, it is time for marijuana users to take a broader perspective on legalization and what it means.

This issue is creeping in to many discussions about marijuana law reform, such as the controversy over the cartel proposal to legalize marijuana in Ohio. Just what are the issues that should concern marijuana users when it comes to the operation and regulation of legal marijuana markets? This is an important question, as legalization proposals these days include important provisions that affect the rights, yes rights, of marijuana consumers.

What are some of these issues? Some of easy to recognize, and they are on display in the news reported by High Times every week. In Colorado increased competition is resulting on lower prices for marijuana. Product quality, including standards about contamination with heavy metals, pesticides, dangerous microbes and fungus, is becoming an important consumer issue here and in Canada. The accuracy of potency labels is of great importance when it comes to smoked marijuana, but even more so with respect to edibles.

Regulation can be used to protect consumer interests, but it can also be used for other state-oriented purposes. A popular concept these days in academic circles is that marijuana markets should be set up to create artificial scarcity, limiting competition in order to maintain high prices. The objective of artificial scarcity is to have a limited number of producers with incentives to cooperate with regulators. High prices are desired by the academic supporters of this approach as one way of limiting or discouraging marijuana use. But another objective is to guarantee producers a large share of the market in order to discourage them from marketing and advertising marijuana in ways that promote marijuana use, especially among teenagers. Ironically this approach is justified in terms of preventing a “Big Marijuana” industry modeled after “Big Tobacco.” However Big Tobacco is Big Tobacco because it is an oligopoly, a cartel dominated by a small number of companies – exactly what promoters of artificial scarcity recommend as the ideal framework for legalized marijuana.

Falling prices in Colorado are resulting from increased competition, and it is clear from the study of economics that increased competition is good for consumers. It’s good for public policy when it comes to marijuana, too – as it drives people out of the black market and into the legal, regulated, and taxed market established by marijuana’s legalization.

Consumer protection (such as provided by labeling and quality standards) and low prices are two of the most important rights of marijuana consumers. Another right is the right to choose, another benefit of a competitive market. These and other consumer issues will be getting more and more attention as more and more marijuana users are served by legal markets.

But there is another right marijuana users need to be aware of, and it is the most important right of all. This is the right to have a voice in making the regulations that are applied to legal marijuana markets. This is a basic principle of American Democracy – people affected by government decisions have a right to participate in reaching those decisions.

The way some people act marijuana legalization is a gift from government, and marijuana users should be thankful for it and not quibble about the details. In this way of thinking, marijuana laws are something the government does to marijuana users – it criminalized them, now it legalizes them (in some places, at least). And if government, or a cartel, wants to keep prices high, marijuana users should accept that because it beats getting arrested. Indeed, many people argue that marijuana users are passive about these issues and really don’t care about the details.  Is this true? Probably not, but time will tell.

Marijuana consumers should take an active role in making regulations for legalized marijuana markets. Their voluntary participation in legal markets is essential for legalization to succeed as a viable option to illegal markets. But beyond that, participation is their right, both as consumers and as American citizens.

Legalization is more than just not getting arrested. It’s also about not getting ripped off.

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