Prohibition—Not Legalization—Leads to Interstate Trafficking

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This week, a Denver grand jury announced indictments of 62 people involved in what is alleged to be significant out-of-state marijuana trafficking, conducted under the guise of legal medical or recreational cannabis cultivation under Colorado’s constitution.

It’s red meat for prohibitionists like Kevin Sabet and Jeff Sessions. They are eager to portray marijuana legalization as a train running off the rails, propelled by an avaricious and sociopathic marijuana industry.

A key talking point in that rhetoric is the complaint that “black market” marijuana dealing hasn’t been eliminated in the states that legalize. Furthermore, the relaxed attitude toward marijuana in the legal states leads to a flood of marijuana crossing the border into states that still maintain prohibition.

That we are forced politically to legalize marijuana in a slow, incremental fashion, just a few states at a time, leaves us vulnerable to rhetoric like theirs, where the results of legalization are purposefully being conflated with the effects of prohibition.

Are there people in legal states growing weed and selling it for great profit out of state? Hell, yes, there are… but there always have been!

Legalization didn’t invent interstate marijuana trafficking. Generations of family farmers across America have grown cannabis where it is more plentiful, then profited from selling it where it is scarcer.

The difference now is that the growers in some states can cultivate and possess legally, goes the prohibitionist reasoning, so legalization is emboldening the interstate marijuana trafficking.

That reasoning falls apart with just a little common sense. How does legalization in a person’s state embolden the person who is intending to break some other state’s prohibition law?

Think about it.

Say you were a grower in Colorado selling out-of-state to Kansas in the 2000s. There were two crimes you were committing:

1. Cultivating marijuana in Colorado; and

2. Trafficking that marijuana in Kansas.

If the cops investigated crime #1 back in the day and busted you, they might have you on some personal marijuana charges in-state. That’s a tough investigation, though, if they don’t have any tips, clues or evidence you were selling.

Investigating crime #2, however, is where the serious charges lie, since the crime has gone interstate and involved sales. There would be littler fish busted in Kansas who’d flip on the bigger fish in Colorado. The feds would get involved because it’s not just some small-time, in-state weed grower.

So, in 2012 when the people of Colorado secured their constitutional right to cultivate cannabis, that eliminated crime #1 for the small-time grower, who really isn’t the type to be shipping pounds to Kansas, anyway.

It’s still just as illegal to traffic weed in Kansas, though, isn’t it?

The risk for that grower of being busted for crime #2 didn’t change at all. It may have even increased, as Kansas cops are now more attuned to seeking out the Colorado weed.

In fact, isn’t the announcement of these indictments proof that legalization isn’t providing cover for the interstate dealer? The fact that you can’t bust people growing weed in-state doesn’t mean you’ve promoted people trafficking weed out-of-state.

That’s prohibition’s fault, not legalization’s.

Prohibition has always inflated the value of a dried cannabis flower.

If Kansas chooses to maintain a marijuana law that falsely inflates its price, then Kansas gets to deal with the consequences of that choice. One of them will be creating a huge profit incentive for unlicensed, unregulated purveyors of marijuana to fulfill the demand in Kansas.

Prohibitionists like to offer a false dichotomy that legalization will either eliminate or exacerbate the unregulated market. Even if we do legalize marijuana in all 50 states, however, there will always be a subset of providers who will skirt regulations and avoid taxes—the so-called “black market.”

Nothing will ever eliminate an unregulated market—there are “black markets” in purses, DVDs and shoes—and it is prohibition, not legalization, that exacerbates unregulated markets.

Cigarettes are legal, but policy and punitive taxation differences subsidize a thriving unregulated cigarette market from providers in North Carolina to consumers in Manhattan.

Fireworks are legal to varying degree, but Oregonians visit Idaho, Nevada and Washington to bring back purchases of the type that are prohibited back home.

Alcohol is prohibited on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, while just across the border in Nebraska there is a town of 10 people with four alcohol stores that sell tens of thousands of cans of beer daily. 

The only real solution for ending the so-called “black market” in marijuana is complete legalization in all 50 states with a minimum of taxation and regulation. Aside from Pine Ridge, there’s not much of an unregulated beer market in America, because every adult who wants it can get it cheaply and easily just about anytime anywhere.

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