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Radical Rant: Policy Ph.D.s Think Your Pot Should Be As Expensive As Possible

Russ Belville

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I am attending the Cannabis Science & Policy Summit at the City University of New York. The summit was organized by New York University and BOTEC Analysis, and led by Professor Mark Kleiman, Ph.D.

If some of those names sound familiar, it is because BOTEC was the company selected by the state of Washington to consult on the implementation of its I-502 marijuana legalization law. Kleiman was dubbed “Washington’s Pot Czar,” and in 2013 accepted the job of helping the state legalize marijuana despite federal prohibition.

However, just three years earlier as California was trying to pass Prop 19 to legalize marijuana, Kleiman was interviewed in the Los Angeles Times about it.

“There’s one problem with legalizing, taxing and regulating cannabis at the state level,” Kleiman foretold, “It can't be done.”

Kleiman made all sorts of predictions then about how events would unfold post-legalization.

“[A]ny grower or seller paying California taxes on marijuana sales or filing pot-related California regulatory paperwork would be confessing, in writing, to multiple federal crimes,” Kleiman assured us. “And that won't happen.”

“[W]e’d see massive federal busts of California growers and retail dealers,” Kleiman continued, “no matter how legal their activity was under state law.”

In order to legalize marijuana, Kleiman warned, “it’s going to have to be at the national level (which includes modifying the anti-drug treaties) rather than state by state. Any other approach is a pipe dream.”

Three years later, Kleiman and BOTEC were taking taxpayer money to execute that pipe dream.

Now, Kleiman is running this summit with other public policy Ph.D.s from both sides of the legalization issue discussing what six years ago he believed, “There’s no way on earth the federal government is going to tolerate that.”

On Kleiman’s side of the debate, we found Jonathan Caulkins, a professor from Carnegie Mellon University; Kevin Sabet and Jeff Zinsmeister from Project SAM; and Sue Rusche from National Families in Action, among many.

A central theme for all of them was that legalization of cannabis will depress the price of marijuana, which will lead to more people using marijuana and more use of marijuana by current users. This, they tell us, is a very bad thing.

Caulkins explained how marijuana needs to be “just legal enough,” referring to his belief that marijuana ought to be legal enough to meet the current demand, yet restricted enough to not increase demand. Various means of accomplishing that were floated, like Kleiman’s ideas that there should be a marijuana user’s license and taxation based on potency, not price or weight.

The overall theme was that public policy needs to check the legal market so that marijuana is not glamorized in advertisements, marketed toward children or promoted for use by adults. They all see marijuana use and users as bad for society and who ought to be restrained, but that doing so through criminal prohibition has proven to be a failure.

At least we’ve gotten them that far!

Kleiman likes to make hay on the famous 80/20 maxim—that 80 percent of the consumer good is purchased by 20 percent of the consumers. He harps on the alcohol model, where “drink responsibly” is a joke, because the alcohol companies rely on binge drinkers and alcoholics to maintain their profits. If everybody drank responsibly, most of the booze companies would fold.

But folks who’ve never smoked pot, like Kleiman, Rusche and Sabet, always see marijuana through beer goggles. More people consuming booze and more of it is definitely something we should work to avoid, because alcohol is a toxic and addictive product detrimental to both the user and society.

What they miss in the marijuana analogy, aside from it being far less harmful than alcohol, is that marijuana has its own net positives and therapeutic applications. If we increased the population of marijuana users, but that was depleting the population of oxycodone users, Ambien users, acetaminophen users and drunk drivers, wouldn’t that be a net positive for the user and society?

The one thing these policy Ph.D.s cannot abide is the idea of an unfettered free market in cannabis which would drop the production prices down to tea bag levels. Because then, anyone who wanted to smoke pot would have access to a high-quality, low price product, and they might then smoke more of it.

They also tend to believe that we haven’t seen terrible effects from marijuana misuse and abuse so far in history, because up until now, we haven’t had the super-potent varieties of marijuana we have today. A Stanford professor named MacCoun actually opined that we know people who drink a glass of wine daily, but they aren’t alcoholics, and while maybe back in the '70s with lower-potency weed people could smoke a joint daily and not be dependent, that would be so much more difficult today with high-potency weed.

It’s really amazing how much book learning can completely screw up one’s perception of what ought to be a simple issue.

(Photo Courtesy of MarijuanaPolitics.com)

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