Cannabis in the New Millennium, Pt. 1

The legalization of cannabis is an objective—but not the ultimate goal. Don’t let anyone convince you that this is a simple issue of legal or not.

Cannabis has been illegal for so long, so many people have been arrested and so many more have suffered from the injustice of prohibition that it is understandable for any reasonable person to simply want prohibition to end, on any terms. It is especially seductive to argue that any form of legalization is just the beginning and that once the dam of prohibition is breached, there will be no containing the current of reform.

People like simple solutions. Just stop arresting people; everything will work out fine after that. No, wait a minute, that’s what decriminalization was supposed to accomplish.

Forty years and millions of arrests later, the country is finally getting around to the question of regulation and taxation. Now, the argument is to just allow commerce, even if it sells out cultivation rights to a small group (in this case, the financial backers of ResponsibleOhio), everything will work out fine after that. Forty years more will pass—whether or not people will get arrested for violating the constitutional monopoly on cultivation that would be established by ResponsibleOhio remains to be seen—but one thing will be certain: Consumers in Ohio will still be paying inflated prices for cannabis.

Here is a radical concept to consider—stake out a real solution to the cannabis problem and fight for it.

That solution is a free, open market subject to reasonable regulation and taxation, enacted in a way that allows for participation, input and support from interested members of the public.

The problem with the initiative in Ohio is that it locks a monopoly into the state constitution, making it very hard for the public to reconsider and revise.

But the Ohio proposal is not the issue here, so much as the ultimate goal of cannabis reform—which has been, remains and will continue to be about far more than merely stopping people from getting arrested.

About 30 million people use marijuana annually in the United States, and about 700,000 of them get arrested every year. Do the math, that’s 2.3 percent. Is that acceptable? Of course not! Does it need to be stopped? Of course!

But there is also more at stake.

Consider the medical use of cannabis, now scientifically recognized as having therapeutic value with respect to a wide range of problems, illnesses and debilitating conditions. Every patient who has been deprived access to cannabis for the last generation (and longer) represents collateral damage from the injustice of prohibition.

Every unnecessary compromise made in ending prohibition results in additional collateral damage, a lesson known from historical experience yet impossible to predict with future certainty. But this much is known—imperfect cannabis regulatory laws increase the costs of cannabis use, restrict access to the needy,and impede economic, scientific and social development of the beneficial impacts of cannabis in the new millennium.

The legal cannabis industry is a work in progress.

Legalization needs to spread from a few states, to many, to the entire nation. States will be experimenting with different forms of regulation. Some will favor a free market with a multitude of cultivators, like California. Some may adopt restrictive approaches, like that proposed now in Ohio. In time, there will be stark differences between many states with legalized cannabis and many more which maintain prohibition.

Then, the political argument will shift from states’ rights to enacting legalization at the national level. Some may argue that it is acceptable to leave it to the states and the national government should not get involved. Wait for it, and look closely at who makes these arguments—odds are they will be the ones profiting the most from state laws, such as the Ohio proposal, that gives them unfair advantages in the market.

Think about the future. Is it acceptable for people in some states to have legal access to cannabis, while in others it is denied by law? Is it acceptable to restrict access to cannabis for medical use and only for a few designated conditions? Is it acceptable to restrict personal cultivation because it is easier for the government to monitor a few large, monopolistic cultivation enterprises? Is it acceptable to inflate the price of cannabis through excessive taxation or monopolistic practices because higher prices benefit  the government and/or because high prices are supposed to reduce cannabis use? (These last two are part of the rationale for the Ohio proposal; its passage will be seen as an endorsement of these two approaches.)

Ending arrests is an important objective in the fight to end marijuana prohibition.

But ‘something is better than nothing’ only gets America so far when it comes to cannabis reform. The idea that incremental progress is more realistic than radical and fundamental solutions has been dominant in cannabis reform for decades. It is an important force in the emergence of cannabis legalization in the United States, and it should not be abandoned by any means.

Nonetheless, it is time to give thought to the next problem, winning the war but losing the peace. Cannabis in the new millennium requires a new way of thinking about the goals and the strategy of reform.

Ending arrests is a good start, but that’s just the first step. As the fight continues to reduce arrests, it’s time to consider solutions for the new set of problems on the horizon.

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