As many of you saw, last week BMG had some great discussions on the ballot initiative to regulate marijuana like alcohol that will be voted on this November. It began with my post asking why progressive organization ActBlue was working with the campaign to continue prohibition, and a petition I created for progressives to ask them to stop. Senator Jason Lewis then issued a detailed response explaining his opposition to the initiative. Both of these posts generated tons of comments (47 and 92, respectively, as of this writing), and I’m really thankful to the BMG community for a great discussion. Someone asked that I make my comment responding to Senator Lewis’ points into its own post, so here it is (small edits to add links):
Potency & Edibles
Senator Lewis is absolutely correct that the average potency of marijuana today is higher than it used to be (which it’s worth pointing out was driven by prohibition, as more potent drugs are easier to smuggle – same reason we had “rum runners” and not “beer runners” during alcohol prohibition). While it does come with more potential for dosage mistakes, education about these products is the most important thing. People know that you drink 12oz of 5% beer but only 1.5oz of 35% liquor – many tourists in Colorado don’t know that 5mg is the standard dose, so seeing a 30mg label means nothing to them. Education like the industry “Start Low, Go Slow” campaign is the best way to alleviate this problem. And while it is a problem, luckily it’s impossible to fatally overdose on marijuana, unlike alcohol – people who consume too much will have a bad time, but their organs won’t shut down and they won’t die. Additionally, a legal marijuana market allows for greater variety of dosages, as many people prefer less THC, just like many people prefer beer or wine over shots of liquor. The black market incentivizes potency, legal markets incentivize variety. There are many low-THC products on the market in CO and other states, as there will be in MA post-legalization.
I and everyone on the pro-legalization side agrees that marijuana use is not healthy for young people with developing brains, and don’t want youth consuming marijuana. That’s why the bill sets the minimum age at 21. Some think that legal marijuana will inevitably lead to increased youth use, but this just isn’t true. The Netherlands, which have had de facto legal marijuana for decades, have significantly lower rates of youth use than the United States. This could be chalked up to cultural differences, but also important is that while youth marijuana use is at a 30-year high, youth tobacco and alcohol use are at 40-year lows. We didn’t decrease youth use of these drugs by banning them for everyone, we just told youth the honest truth about the harms associated with them and enforced minimum ages strictly. We can do the same for marijuana.
Yes, the initiative does allow for businesses to sell marijuana, just like we allow for tobacco and alcohol. But like with those other drugs, there are strict laws banning the advertising of drugs to children. Society has learned from allowing Joe Camel to go so long, and is not going to let that happen with marijuana. There will be very strict advertising restrictions, much moreso than we have for a drug like alcohol that’s allowed to sponsor stadiums or run television commercials (neither of which marijuana businesses will do). Another major difference between the marijuana and tobacco industries is that the marijuana industry has a huge activist contingent that is involved because they want to see it done right (myself included), rather than just being in it for the money. The industry has been much better at shaming bad actors, and I will personally continue to do so as long as I live. Even moreso than the general public, the activists who created this industry don’t want it to be taken over by Goldman Sachs or Marlboro types who want to make money by any means necessary.
Ballot initiative details
It’s true that many of these items are not explicitly in the initiative, but that’s because including every nitty-gritty detail of legalization in an initiative would be both impossible and undesirable. It creates the Cannabis Control Commission, which would be in charge of creating regulations that address specific concerns. This is a much better place for those details to be considered, as Commissioners will be experts, and regulations are easier to change than laws.
Yes, marijuana is illegal under federal law. But Massachusetts is already breaking those laws by allowing medical marijuana, and in the eyes of the feds, adult use marijuana is no different – they’re both completely illegal. Luckily, as more states legalize, the federal government will come around and eventually start regulating it nationally. We’re already seeing this with medical marijuana, with the CARERS Act gaining serious traction in Congress, and I think we’ll see full federal legalization in 5-7 years (depending on who the president is).
Incarceration, black market & tax revenues
True, no one goes to jail for marijuana possession anymore, but there are plenty of people going to jail for cultivation and distribution, which this initiative would stop. The black market in Colorado is not thriving – it’s not dead, but it’s a shadow of what it used to be. It’s stronger in Washington, where taxes are so high that it still makes economic sense to buy on the black market instead of from legal stores, but luckily CRMLA would avoid that problem. And as for tax revenues, I wholeheartedly disagree that the taxes will barely cover the costs of regulation. Here’s how Colorado spent the ~$85 million it got from marijuana last year:
– $30M annually goes to the “Best Fund” (public school construction fund)
– $16.5M goes to substance abuse treatment centers
– $10M is allocated for school projects like mentoring and after school programs
– $15M goes to public education around marijuana
– $14M goes to regulation efforts (only 16.5% of the taxes)
The primary motivation for legalization is social justice. Most of us who are advocating for reform have been doing so for far longer than there’s been a legal industry, and my progressive values are what led me to get involved with the drug policy reform movement. And no, the Marijuana Policy Project is not concerned about profits, they’re a nonprofit advocacy organization that has also been working on this since long before there was any money in it. And as an advocacy group, all the money they collect is spent on more reform work, not lining their pockets.
I understand that this is somewhat new, which makes it scary for some people. But Colorado and Washington legalized four years ago, and we’ve already learned a lot from their experiences – I think enough to start doing it ourselves. And there is a real sense of urgency for passing this now: if we do it this year, we will be the first state in New England to do so, and that will come with a lot of benefits. Colorado saw a huge boom in tourism and their larger economy post-legalization, and we would get those same benefits. If we delay, Vermont and Rhode Island will probably beat us to it and get all of those benefits instead. To me, this is much more about justice than about economic stimulus, but the economic benefits of legalization – especially of legalizing early – are nothing to sneeze at.
Thanks again to all who joined in on those earlier discussions, and I would welcome further discussion of my response and the larger issue in the comments below. I’ve been working in drug policy since 2009 and am always happy to talk if anyone has questions about the initiat, and I hope that those reading this will vote yes on the ballot question this November.