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Medicine, Herb, Risk, Reward

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Cannabis is many things, but really only one thing.

It has medical use, but should it really be considered medicine? Ultimately, when all is said and done—and that will be awhile—cannabis is an herb, an herb that is  an elegant, complex, versatile botanical compound.

It is one. It is many.

It is one of those magnificent paradoxes that is provocatively suitable for meditation. But there is work to be done, and there is plenty of time for meditation later.

Cannabis has medical value, and no one should be denied access to cannabis for therapeutic use. Indeed, millions of Americans now understand that truth, and over half of the states in this nation have recognized this with legal protections for patients who use cannabis to treat several medical conditions.

But legal protections for medical cannabis patients are compromise reforms, progress toward more effective, just and practical changes to the nation’s marijuana laws. When cannabis is legal for all Americans to use, there will be no need for medical cannabis laws, nor a medical cannabis industry, nor an excuse to limit the availability of medical cannabis in ways that inflate its price to create artificially high profits for medical cannabis vendors.

The issue of whether cannabis is medicine or an herb is also an issue of risk and reward, an issue that determines and justifies profits in a capitalist economy.

In the illegal market the high price of cannabis is justified, so economic theory explains, by the risk presented by the threat of arrest and related criminal sanctions. Alternatively, one could argue that high prices are the result of industry collusion and the lack of laws protecting customers from price-gouging; technically, the problem is that the rule of law is not available to protect customers from price-fixing and other non-competitive, monopolistic practices that are rampant in the illegal market.

The issue of cannabis pricing in the semi-legal market is characterized by the same dynamics. People investing in the cannabis industry in states with legal markets are taking risks, risks created by the clash with federal law and the uncertainty and operational difficulties that this clash has produced (such as lack of access to the banking system and the lack of trademark protections). In return for taking these risks, they seek the reward of profit and, for some, profits over the long term derived from getting into the marijuana market on the ground floor, at the beginning.

Restricting legal cannabis to the medical marijuana market is another way to create better rewards for the risk of market entry. It even institutionalizes risk—in the form of the risk of selling to a non-medical using customer—that also further justifies profits derived from such a limited market.

Yet if cannabis were to be limited to medical use, and this is what will happen if marijuana is considered medicine, then the legal and economic consequences of this institutionalizes greater risks and accordingly guarantees greater rewards for companies in the medical marijuana industry. This is not an abstract concept.

The medicalization of cannabis will ultimately lead to it being a pharmaceutical product, exclusively owned, manufactured and sold by pharmaceutical companies. The pharmaceuticalization of cannabis will require that every cannabis product be subjected to the same rigorous testing as pharmaceutical drugs and require that every producer in the industry pay the cost of this extensive clinical testing process. It will require greater investment, which in turn means greater risk, and in turn again, be subject to even greater rewards.

In other words, making marijuana medicine will result in less access and greater costs for all consumers.

This is just the opposite of what marijuana consumers want, which is greater access at a lower cost.

Legalization for all increases the availability of cannabis throughout the United States and correspondingly reduces the cost of using cannabis.

Some argue that widespread legalization, and allowing personal use cultivation, will increase the supply of cannabis and thus increase use, producing public health problems. They argue for propping up the price of marijuana to discourage use. But this is really just another question of risk and reward. Limiting supply and taxing marijuana in a way to maintain existing prices are just other ways of increasing risk and inflating reward.

The more restrictions placed on the legal market, the more incentives there will be for people to participate in an illegal market. The greater the size of the illegal market, the more risk there is for investment in the legal market and the more economic pressure there will be for investors to seek increased rewards (high profits) as compensation for taking such risks.

Using the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) to regulate marijuana, by rescheduling it in ways that recognize it’s accepted medical use, simply transfers the risks and rewards of the marijuana industry from the current illegal market to the highly capitalized pharmaceutical industry. Restricting access and increasing risk is not the basis for a successful regulatory model for cannabis in the United States. It’s just another way to extract large, unjustified profits from cannabis consumers.

Medicine, herb, risk, reward.

Medical use is a right, but cannabis is an herb. Risk and reward . . . a free market lowers risk, reduces rewards and in the long run benefit the publics by producing consumer savings and reducing the incentives for excessive commercialization of cannabis.

Ironically, opponents of legalization are very concerned about the commercialization of cannabis. They need to learn that the only way to reduce the rewards of commercialization is to reduce the risks created by marijuana laws and emerging policies for legal cannabis. The answer is legalization for all.

Jon Gettman is the Cannabis Policy Director for High Times. Jon has a Ph.D. in public policy, teaching undergraduate criminal justice and graduate level management courses. A long-time contributor to High Times, his research and analytical work has been used by NORML, Marijuana Policy Project, American’s for Safe Access, the Drug Policy Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations. Jon’s research contributions to the topic of marijuana law reform have included findings on the economic value of domestic marijuana cultivation, attempts to have marijuana rescheduled under federal law and racial disparities in marijuana possession arrest rates. Serving as NORML’s National Director in the late 1980s, he was instrumental in creating NORML’s activist program.

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