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Consultant Gives Backhanded “Yes” To Oregon Legalization

Russ Belville

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Today I got a link to an article in Washington Monthly by Mark A. R. Klieman (or M.A.R.K.), the UCLA public policy professor whose company, BOTEC, consulted with the Washington State Liquor Control Board to regulate their marijuana program. His recommendations resulted in far too few growers supplying far too few stores, leading to $35/gram prices that pressured the state legislature to go after the plethora of unregulated medical marijuana dispensaries where marijuana costs $10/gram. In comparison to Colorado, it would be fair to say Washington’s legalization is not the better of the two plans.

In the article, M.A.R.K. weighs in on legalization in my state of Oregon through Measure 91. He writes:

Measure 91 does not reflect a sophisticated understanding of the problems of illicit markets or a nuanced view about substance use disorder. Focusing on the goal of eradicating the illicit cannabis market in Oregon, it doesn’t pay enough attention to the risk that Oregon might become a source of illicit supply to neighboring states. Focusing exclusively on preventing use by minors, it neglects the risk of increasing dependency among adults.

M.A.R.K. begins with the same failed presumption that poisons every prohibitionist’s take on legalizing marijuana: that more people smoking more pot would be disastrous for them and society in general.

The Pareto Principle tells us 80 percent of consumption is driven by 20 percent of consumers. M.A.R.K. and his ideological ilk like Kevin Sabet love to drive this point home – that the liquor industry would collapse if the top 20 percent of drinkers would “drink responsibly,” that Big Alcohol must market to addicts and create more of them. Indeed, I saw a recent Washington Post chart showing the top level of drinkers consume some 70+ drinks a week. Wow! (And yet, M.A.R.K. doesn’t call for alcohol prohibition or some punitive taxation to raise the price of beer to some ridiculous $50 a six-pack level.)

But I have yet to hear from prohibitionists what disaster befalls society from that top 20 percent of weed smokers. We know what those 70+ drinks-a-week people are doing to society. I am most certainly in that top decile of pot smokers (I use not just daily, but more like hourly), yet I run a business, have many friends, and don’t seem to be harming anyone that I can determine.

So let’s say, as M.A.R.K. correctly opines, that legal marijuana with no restrictions and production of scale eventually gets to the prices of tea. That means I… will be using as much marijuana as I currently do. Trust me, I can’t really use much more and still type.

Yes, some people who are using a little marijuana occasionally may end up using more marijuana more often. Maybe some of them get dependent on it and it adversely affects their lives. But much of what is considered “dependence” these days is when some outside entity — a school, an employer, a family, law enforcement — demands the marijuana user stop using marijuana and the marijuana user doesn’t want to. Maybe it’s justifiable (grades slipping, shoddy work, ignoring responsibilities, committing crimes) but most of the time, it’s not.  The dean’s list student, the employee of the month, and the behaving teen or adult are just as pressured to stop.  Is that really dependence or just strong-willed refusal to surrender bodily sovereignty?

Nobody wants the children becoming little Spicoli’s and Slater’s, but so far in prohibition, we’ve seen no strong correlation between a state liberalizing marijuana policies, the price of marijuana, and the rate of teen use.

I consulted the crowd-source website PriceOfWeed.com and jotted down the average price for a high-quality ounce in every state. Then I downloaded the 10-year (2002-2011) compilation of state marijuana use data by state, broken down by teens (age 12-17) and adults (age 18 and older).  What I found was that price was not a very strong predictor of how many regular teen or adult marijuana users there were in a state.

My state, Oregon, currently has the lowest weed prices in the nation at $208/ounce. Roughly 8.9% of our teenagers use marijuana monthly. But go to two nearby states, Idaho and Nevada, and you’ll find weed costs about the same ($276 and $267, respectively), but Nevada has a full two percentage points more monthly teen use (6.9% and 8.9 percent).

Vermont has the highest teen use rate at 12.2% with weed prices at a near high $374.  But South Dakota weed costs about the same ($377) but far fewer South Dakota teens use monthly (7.6 percent).  North Dakota weed costs 20 bucks more and use is down to 5.6%, but Rhode Island weed costs fifty bucks less and use is lower than Vermont’s (10.9 percent), too.

Mississippi and Connecticut are both decriminalization states (the latter didn’t pass medical until 2012, after this data set) and both have equivalent weed prices ($337 and $341), but Connecticut has more than twice the teen use rates (4.4 percent vs. 9.3 percent).  But Mississippi’s second-lowest teen use rate is beaten by Utah’s lowest (4.2 percent) even though weed is cheaper in Utah by fifty bucks.

But these are ridiculously high prices under a veil of marijuana prohibition.  Perhaps they tell us nothing of what use will be like in a world of 20 ounces and legal acceptance.  Again, I wonder, so what?  Use of marijuana is not a statistic that happens in a vacuum.  It’s not as if marijuana use rates rising will occur independently of every other harm to self and society out there.

Perhaps in a world of cheap legal marijuana, it becomes the rite of passage for young people and binge drinking becomes passé.  If so, any additional harms from a few kids becoming legitimately cannabis dependent will be more than offset by the kids not dying from alcohol poisoning and committing acts of violence or sexual assault.

Perhaps in this new weed world, more adults begin replacing their cigarette and alcohol habits with more regular and social cannabis use. If so, reduction in drunk driving, spousal abuse, cancer, and cirrhosis should more than make up for any new adults with a pot smoking problem.

Perhaps in pot-opia, more older folks start using cannabis where they used to use Tylenol, Ambien, Viagra, Prozac, Xanax, Oxycontin, or Chardonnay. If so, despite the massive financial hit to the established purveyors of those drugs, the overall health of the population increases far more than the health decline of a few people who might develop an unhealthy relationship with cannabis.

Finally, whether Oregon’s legalization leads to diversion to other states is not Oregon’s problem, it’s the federal government’s.  From my point of view, a flood of cheap accessible weed to nearby states only hastens the arrival of the day those states abandon their treatment of me and my kind as criminals so I can return to my birthplace of Nampa, Idaho, and convince my 72-year-old father to ditch his seven Vicodin a day in favor of medical cannabis to treat his neuropathy.

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