The Big Debate Over Big Marijuana

The New York Times recently gathered a group of its usual suspects for a debate on the issue of the inevitability of Big Marijuana. Now that four states and the District of Columbia have legalized the leaf for recreational purposes, and with more states expected to follow the smoke in the next presidential election, there is some question as to what the appropriate approach is for handling the widespread legalization of marijuana. While some believe the industry should power its way through to a taxed and regulated market, others are concerned that large corporations will capitalize on the opportunity and turn it into an ugly beast.

The first contributor to the debate, Mark Kleiman, professor of public policy at UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, believes it is possible for legal marijuana to exist without commercialization, using the example of Washington DC’s grow-friendly Initiative 71 and the attempt by some lawmakers to turn the nation’s capital into a retail market.

“The District’s elected officials are now considering whether to move beyond “grow and give” by creating another for-profit market. I’m against it,” wrote Kleiman.

“Granted, buying at the store would be more convenient than home growing for Washingtonians who want to consume cannabis, and would therefore compete more effectively against illegal growing and selling,” he continued. “But turning cannabis over to for-profit vendors carries two great risks: increased drug abuse, and illegal exports from the district to the rest of the country. The key factor is price: Legal cannabis will cost (before tax) a small fraction of what dealers now charge for illegal cannabis.”

It certainly makes sense how the cannabis industry could avoid being taken over by Big Marijuana by simply allowing “grow and give” legislation to be imposed across the nation. However, this is America and there is simply no way in hell the federal government is ever going to allow the legalization of a billion dollar product without doing it in a manner in which tremendous gains are possible, which according to Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, is the primary reason he opposes the movement.

Big Marijuana is inevitable “and that, of course, is the real danger of American-style legalization. It would be one thing if recent legalization laws simply removed criminal penalties for adult possession — a revision of that nature is overdue — but the current legalization wave is driven by far more than social justice: it is about making a profit,” wrote Sabet.

Unfortunately, without establishing a taxed and regulated marijuana market, citizens would not have access to pot products with consistent quality that they can trust for safety and effectiveness. Sure, the idea of Americans growing their own weed is a charming concept, but the reality of the population farming for a buzz is about as likely as them growing their own food or brewing their own beer: Yes, some do it, but the majority choose to shop retail.

In the end, there is no real chance of the United States cannabis commerce reverting to philosophies reminiscent of the 17th Century, so it probably best to close the debate and simply embrace Big Marijuana as a necessary evil of a nationwide legalization. Although the cannabis industry will undoubtedly end up in the shadows of the dark side, putting an end to prohibition for profit will ultimately serve the greater good.

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