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Big Marijuana after legalization is scary. But not as scary as continuing prohibition.

What will come after marijuana legalization? Increasingly, drug policy experts and skeptics of legalization worry that it will be a giant industry — one rife with the greed and excesses that led companies to market deadly products like tobacco that cause hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. And while marijuana is not deadly, experts are concerned that overpromoting and overmarketing pot's use could lead to more dependence on the drug.

But as worrisome as the prospects of Big Marijuana may be, the effects of not legalizing — and keeping marijuana an illegal drug that only criminals profit from — are much worse. America's prohibitionist regime has not only led to hundreds of thousands of unproductive arrests, it's also fed a black market for illegal drugs that empowers drug cartels to commit violent acts across the world. Those tangible harms seem much worse to me than the abstract, unclear risks of legalizing marijuana, even if it means handing the drug over to big companies.

Marijuana commercialization worries a lot of experts

There is no perfect policy for minimizing the harms of unsafe drugs like marijuana. Some policies heavily restrict a drug to make it harder to obtain but end up creating a lucrative black market that helps fund violent criminal operations around the world. Other policies take a relaxed approach that eliminates the black market but leads to more drug use.

A major concern with full legalization is that big, for-profit companies will get into the marijuana industry and market the drug in ways that encourage widespread use and abuse. Legalization opponents cite the alcohol industry as an example of the worst-case scenario: Big Alcohol has successfully lobbied lawmakers to block tax increases and regulations on alcohol, all while marketing their product as fun and sexy in television programs — such as the Super Bowl — that are viewed by millions of Americans, including children.

"If we were a country with a history of being able to promote moderation in our consumer use of products, or promote responsible corporate advertising or no advertising, or if we had a history of being able to take taxes gained from a vice and redirect them into some positive areas, I might be less concerned about what I see happening in this country," Kevin Sabet, co-founder of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, told me in March. "But I think we have a horrible history of dealing with these kinds of things."

Drug policy experts like Mark Kleiman at New York University's Marron Institute and Beau Kilmer at the RAND Corporation also point to Colorado, where one study of the state's pot market conducted by the Marijuana Policy Group for the Colorado Department of Revenue found the top 29.9 percent heaviest pot users in the state made up 87.1 percent of demand for the drug. For the marijuana industry, that makes the heaviest users the most lucrative customers.

Colorado marijuana demand

If marijuana companies are able to act like the tobacco and alcohol industries have in the past, there's a very good chance that they'll be able to convince more Americans to try or even regularly use marijuana, and some of the heaviest users may use more.

But even if pot use increases, there's very little reason to think the results would be a cause for huge alarm. And the current policies around marijuana are causing a lot of harm not just in the US, but around the world.

Prohibition has fueled violent drug cartels

Graves in the war on drugs. Richard Ellis/Getty Images

Graves in the city of Juarez, Mexico, which has been roiled by drug-related violence in recent years. (Richard Ellis/Getty Images)

Prohibition, which outlaws marijuana possession and trafficking to deter drug use, appears to have been successful to some degree: A comprehensive study from researchers at RAND found that states that legalized medical marijuana dispensaries saw increases in marijuana dependence among youth and adults and overall pot use among adults, suggesting that people were somewhat deterred from using because the drug was less accessible before medical legalization.

But prohibition has also given way to violence and more incarceration — a high societal price for restricting a drug that, according to a 2014 CNN survey, nearly three-quarters of the public say is safer than alcohol.

In the US, hundreds of thousands of people are arrested for pot possession each year, ripping communities and families apart as people are thrown in jail or prison. There are enormous racial disparities in these arrests, with black people 3.7 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white counterparts despite being only 1.3 times as likely to use the drug.

Around the world, drug cartels and gangs use profits from marijuana shipped to the US to maintain their stranglehold over trafficking routes — particularly through Latin America. Marijuana sales to the US make up a significant chunk of drug cartels' drug export revenue: as much as 20 to 30 percent, according to previous estimates from the Mexican Institute of Competitiveness (2012) and the RAND Corporation (2010). This gives these criminal groups more money to carry out violent trafficking operations in much of Latin America, which contribute to the killing and kidnapping of tens of thousands of people each year and have spawned horrifying stories of cartels beheading and torturing people. And some of that violence occurs in the US, where gangs fight over turf to position themselves to sell illegal drugs.

Full legalization directly addresses the problems caused by prohibition. It reduces arrests for marijuana use by more than 90 percent, according to an analysis by the Drug Policy Alliance of arrests in Colorado following legalization. It also shifts sales from the black market to the gray market, where people sell legal pot under the table, and to the legal market — weakening or even eliminating a major source of revenue for drug cartels and gangs, leaving them less able to continue funding their violent acts. And legalization appears to do this without posing much risk to society as a whole.

More marijuana use wouldn't cause much harm

marijuana smoke

People celebrate 4/20, the unofficial marijuana holiday, in Colorado. (Seth McConnell/Denver Post via Getty Images)

People have been smoking pot for centuries, and scientists around the world have been studying the drug for decades. And after all this time, researchers have been unable to definitively prove that marijuana use can lead to serious health problems, especially among adults, suggesting that pot's negative effects on society are small.

Unlike alcohol and other drugs, marijuana doesn't lead to deadly overdoses and doesn't cause aggressive behaviors that can make someone more likely to commit crime, research shows. And although pot does increase the risk of fatal accidents, a study from Columbia University researchers suggested the increased risk is nowhere near the level of narcotics, stimulants, and especially alcohol.

One way to evaluate society-wide health risks of marijuana is by analyzing marijuana use across generations. National drug surveys suggest that baby boomers used marijuana at much greater rates than any other recent generation. But despite their heavy pot use in the 1960s and '70s, baby boomers didn't see society demonstrably worsen — they experienced a booming economy, big drops in poverty rates, increased access to college educations, and higher life expectancies. If there was some detrimental effect as a result of this generation's pot use, it wasn't big enough to drag people down as they lived through one of the most prosperous points in world history.

Kleiman of the Marron Institute disputed this point in an email, arguing that baby boomers were using weaker strains of marijuana and weren't "dabbing," a very potent way of consuming the drug. So it's certainly possible that today's marijuana could cause more problems, and the research — which can require decades to track people using pot over a lifetime — just hasn't had enough time to find the harms of the drug just yet.

And drug policy experts say there's a risk to pot even if it doesn't have long-term or deadly health effects. "The main risk of cannabis is losing control of your cannabis intake," Kleiman told me in February. "That's going to have consequences in terms of the amount of time you spend not fully functional. When that's hours per day times years, that's bad."

Jon Caulkins of Carnegie Mellon University put it more bluntly: "At some level, we know that spending more than half of your waking hours intoxicated for years and years on end is not increasing the likelihood that you'll win a Pulitzer Prize or discover the cure for cancer."

But these are very abstract, unclear risks that only apply to a small percentage of Americans who are heavy drug users. About 2.5 percent of Americans 12 and older used pot nearly daily or more in 2013, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. After commercialization, Kleiman expects overall pot use to at least double.

With an increase in use, there would still be a very small percentage of the population heavily using marijuana. And while this level of pot use is likely unhealthy — especially if the drug becomes more potent — the harms are less clear and more abstract than the very real and dangerous harms attributed to prohibition, which through incarceration and drug violence is literally ruining hundreds of thousands of lives in the US and killing tens of thousands more around the world.

Commercialization might be the only politically realistic option for legalization advocates

Washington, DC, marijuana legalization

Posters for the marijuana legalization campaign in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Many drug policy experts say the debate over marijuana policy goes beyond whether to commercialize or prohibit pot. As more states consider legalization, experts argue they could try operating their own marijuana shops, similar to what some states do with government-run liquor stores, to curb commercialization. Or they could allow growing and gifting but not selling marijuana — which is the case in Washington, DC — or decriminalize pot but not legalize any way to obtain it.

While it's certainly possible that some of these ideas could work better than commercialization — and it's still too early to say for sure — there are a few reasons to remain cautious about how feasible they are.

For example, a state-run monopoly for marijuana production and sales appears to be the favored option of drug policy experts. A report released by the RAND Corporation in January found that states that maintained alcohol monopolies kept prices higher, reduced access of alcohol to youth, and reduced overall levels of use — all great results for public health and safety.

But politically, this seems like an unlikely option. For states to establish a monopoly on marijuana production and sales, voters or elected officials would have to approve laws that essentially give state governments control over the marijuana industry. Even if a majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana, it's unclear whether they would support turning their state into a pot dealer — and even if they did, state governments might be reluctant to do this, since it would mean forcing state employees to violate federal law, which still prohibits marijuana.

Other policies fall short of fixing all the issues caused by prohibition. While decriminalization would reduce the number of marijuana-related arrests, it would leave in place a black market that would continue to fund drug cartels. And while legalizing pot in more limited ways — by allowing only growing and gifting — would deplete some of the demand for a black market, it's likely some form of legal sales is necessary to satisfy demand for the most widely used illicit drug in the country (although experts are watching Washington, DC, to see how grow-and-gift turns out).

This leaves legalization supporters with one feasible option to address the full scope of issues that concern them: commercialization. The other options are, for better or worse, either politically impractical or wouldn't be able to greatly reduce black market demand for pot.

As with drug policy in general, it comes down to picking the best of the feasible — but not good or great — options. And from that perspective, commercialization seems like a clear upgrade from prohibition.