The commercialization of cannabis in the era of legalization is a constant source of delight and dread.
On the bright side, the availability of legal cannabis for consumers is growing in a number of states, along with the growth of market competition and innovation to respond to consumer needs and interests. Add to this the additional financial support for the spread of legalization provided by entrepreneurs seeking to protect and expand their opportunities to capitalize and profit.
The down side of commercialization is the same with cannabis as with all other markets.
Capitalism is not always pretty. Competition often tends toward self-interest. As my colleague Russ Bellville addressed in an excellent column, the commercialization of cannabis inflicts a personal toll on the community of activists who have worked, fought, and sacrificed to make reform a reality. What happens to this community of virtue when cannabis is legal throughout the United States?
The answer to that question is best addressed by another question. Who will represent cannabis consumers when cannabis is legal? The community of virtue that nurtured legalization all these years, that’s who.
HIGH TIMES has always had the interests of cannabis consumers as its highest priority. The leading public interest organizations advancing drug policy reform also seek to represent and advance the interests of consumers, but this is not their priority or their primary objective. This is not a criticism of these groups, but recognition that they are operating as political advocates and agents of social change.
Political advocacy requires pragmatism, and that requires compromise. This is how legalization has occurred in the past and how it will occur in the future. Politics is one thing. Consumer advocacy, however, is another.
Look at the organization’s involved in the legalization movement.
There are numerous political and advocacy groups working to change public policy to end prohibition. Now, there is a new wave of industry groups working to protect and advance the interests of entrepreneurs—by seeking access to the banking system, for example.
Entrepreneurs, and some policy analysts, are also pushing regulatory systems that give a priority to commercial and government interests over those of consumers. Examples of this include limiting market access, restricting personal cultivation and enacting high rates of taxation to artificially inflate the retail price of cannabis.
Who is representing consumers in these new policy debates?
Some attention to consumer issues is provided by political advocacy groups, but the primary voice for consumers comes from the traditional activist community which has fought for legalization for decades. Representing consumers is a challenge that will persist after cannabis is legalized, and this is the future of cannabis activism.
There needs to be an Association of Cannabis Consumers with the sole mission of representing and serving cannabis users. There may be existing organizations that could transform themselves into such an association, but it would take a substantial change in their outlook and priorities.
Look at the debate over the recently defeated proposal in Ohio to establish a group monopoly over cannabis cultivation. This proposal created a conflict between supporting legalization, which would end arrests, and consumer interests, as the proposal would benefit a limited number of entrepreneurs at the expense of consumers.
Every current advocacy group has a conflict of interest when it comes to protecting the interests of cannabis consumers.
Again, this is not a critique of such groups. They are getting the job done. But the job they are working on it getting cannabis legalized. There is another job at hand—protecting consumers from both misguided government policy and self-serving industry action.
This is where the community of virtue produced by the cannabis reform movement must continue their good work, and this needs to be the future of cannabis activism.
What are consumer interests?
It’s not hard to make a list.
Consumers interests include establishing and preserving a right to grow cannabis, to enter the market, to protect their jobs, to prevent high taxes and inflated prices, to be served by competitive and responsive markets, to have cannabis products safely produced and accurately labeled, and the ability to respond to abusive and defamatory attacks on cannabis use and cannabis users.
This requires activism, and activists are required to advance the new issues of cannabis legalization.
It’s really simple.
In the old days, cannabis activists fought the government.
In the new era, the fight continues as cannabis activists must fight both the government and private industry.
The big difference is that in a legalized market consumers will have new allies, surprisingly in both industry and in government. That will take a little getting used to, and it will take virtue to understand who is on the side of consumers and who is on the side of ripping them off.
That’s why this is a job for the grass-roots foundation of the cannabis reform movement.
(Photo Courtesy of the Chicago Tribune)