Pot Matters: Free Cannabis

What if it were against the law to pay for cannabis rather than to grow, possess or share it?

This is not a serious policy recommendation, but rather an interesting way to think about prohibition, its objectives and possible reforms.

A new law has been passed in France to make it a crime to pay for sex. The rationale behind the law is to shift the criminality of prostitution to the customer and, consequently, to make it easier for prostitutes to seek protection from violence and for foreign prostitutes to acquire temporary residence verdicts. The proposal is controversial and opposed by prostitutes. 

As reported by the Associated Press “prostitution is itself legal in France—though brothels, pimping and the sale of sex to minors are illegal.” Critics, like Amnesty International, argue that the new law makes commerce riskier for sex workers rather than increase their protection.

So what does this have to do with cannabis? 

The issue at hand concerns the vice model often used as a basis for marijuana prohibition. This model is discussed in an old paper by the National Academy of Sciences entitled "An Analysis of Marijuana Policy." The general framework for prohibition—for prostitution, the drug trade and gambling, for example—is a question of the following alternatives: prohibition of use and supply, prohibition of supply only, prohibition of use only or regulation.

Alcohol prohibition in the 1920s was actually a prohibition of supply only policy. Modern marijuana prohibition has been a policy of prohibition of use and supply, but decriminalization started a transformation of this approach toward a policy that makes a priority out of prohibition of supply. Modern legalization initiatives, obviously, are beginning to replace all of these models with regulation.

The major concern about legalized cannabis, or at least a popular argument against it, is that it will create “Big Marijuana,” an industrial behemoth similar to “Big Tobacco” that will push marijuana into the hands of children.

Marijuana is now legal to possess and use in Washington, D.C., but not to sell. People sell it anyway.

But that’s not the point here. 

What would it be like if cannabis were free, and laws against its sale effectively eliminated any kind of commercial activity? Yes, that’s impossible to accomplish, and that’s why prohibition fails, and that’s why regulatory regimes that seek to artificially inflate the cost of cannabis will fail. 

But as a mental exercise, what if the law required cannabis to be free? What would that be like?

Imagine. If you wanted to use cannabis, you’d have to grow it or befriend someone who did and was willing to share it with you.

What effect would this have on teen use?

Actually, it would drop dramatically because such laws would be the most effective manner to create “artificial scarcity” throughout society. Adults would not have access to enough marijuana to meet demand, and there simply wouldn’t be enough in circulation to share with teenagers. Some would grow it themselves, and they’d probably become very popular—so popular it would be easier than it is now to identify them and get them to stop.

What effect would this have on commercial advertising?

There wouldn’t be any. There would not be a large commercialized marijuana industry doing all it can to maximize profits through advertising and marketing strategies.

What effect would this have on the prevalence of marijuana use? 

It would be lower than it is now because many people would simply not be able to grow their own or get access to people who’d share it with them.

What effect would this have on the industry selling lights and growing supplies?  

They would enter a golden age of profitability.

What effect would this have on medical marijuana access? 

It would produce a greater reliance on personal caregivers, and frankly, under any realistic implementation of this sort of law, there would have to be exceptions to guarantee medical access. And yes, this could unravel the whole approach—but this is a thought experiment, not a serious, tangible proposal. 

Realistically, an effective ban on paying for cannabis would create a large-scale barter industry—a lot of trading favors. But even this would be less commercialized than either a legalized marijuana industry or the current illegal market under prohibition.

Now, back to reality. 

This is not going to happen. But consider this: when people oppose marijuana’s legalization with complaints about commercialization and concerns about its impact on teenage access to marijuana, perhaps the best response is just "why not make it against the law to pay for cannabis?"  

This is not a frivolous suggestion—because the real issue about prohibition is the question of commerce, both legal and illegal. Opponents of legalization don’t want to talk about illegal commerce; they want to pretend the choice before the public is between legal marijuana and no marijuana at all.

Prohibition is a matter of prohibiting supply. When opponents of legalization talk in terms of conceding that people should not go to jail for marijuana use, they are acknowledging this. It’s all about the market, whether the public is better off with a legal or an illegal market. That’s the choice. So if opponents don’t want a legalized market, the next best way to get rid of the illegal market is to make cannabis free.

What if it were against the law to pay for cannabis rather than to grow, possess or share it? Free cannabis is not such a bad idea after all. 

(Photo Courtesy of OpposingViews.com)

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