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Marijuana legalization opponents are making drug policy worse by refusing to admit defeat

Toward the end of Prohibition, John D. Rockefeller Jr., the powerful businessman who supported the US ban on alcohol, admitted defeat. Seeing the effect Prohibition had on America, he concluded that the policy was doomed. So in the 1930s, he underwrote a study that laid out how to legalize alcohol while strictly regulating it. The study shapes alcohol policy to this day, as Garrett Peck explained for Reason.

Today, opponents of marijuana legalization are in a similar position as Rockefeller — but they don't want to admit it. Polls show steadily growing support for legalization over the last few decades, four states and Washington, DC, have legalized pot, and more states seem likely to follow in 2016. But opponents of legalization have rejected the idea that they are losing — and remain dedicated solely to stopping legalization.

As a result, the US is getting stuck with a bad drug policy — the exact kind of policy that opponents of legalization fear so much. If they want to stop it, they'll have to follow Rockefeller's steps and admit defeat.

Big Marijuana is coming. But it doesn't have to.

A marijuana plant. Shutterstock

All four states that have legalized pot have adopted a commercialized model that lets for-profit entities sell the drug. It looks very likely that this for-profit cannabis industry will only grow as more states legalize through a similar framework. So the US is quickly heading to a point where for-profit companies will push marijuana to consumers — even if it causes public health and safety problems — to make a buck.

Kevin Sabet, co-founder of the anti-legalization Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), previously told me that this is his group's biggest concern:

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. But I think we have a horrible history of dealing with these kinds of things.

But there are alternative legalization policies that prohibit or limit commercialization, such as creating a state monopoly that puts the state government in charge of sales (much like state-run liquor stores), allowing only nonprofits to sell marijuana, or legalizing marijuana but only allowing possession, gifting, and growing without allowing sales (like DC does).

Yet no activist is really pushing for the alternatives. Pro-legalization advocates aren't interested, since they're winning despite concerns about commercialization. And anti-legalization groups like SAM have taken the stance that they will oppose legalization in any form, because they truly think they can stop it from happening.

The polarized debate leaves a chasm in the middle, where better policies could be up for consideration — but aren't.

A Rockefeller-like figure could fill the void

People toast to the end of Prohibition. Imagno via Getty Images

Let's say legalization is close to inevitable. It certainly seems that way: Not only have polls shown rising support for legalization, but younger people are very much in favor of it. As these people come of voting age, they'll continue skewing support further and further toward legalization. (This is similar to what happened with same-sex marriage.)

In this world, the question becomes how to legalize, not whether.

Rockefeller, faced with this reality as Prohibition came to an end, moved to create a model of legalization that would mitigate his concerns with alcohol use and abuse. It was far from perfect — alcohol is still linked 88,000 deaths each year. But it would be worse with looser regulations, and officials and activists could use the lessons from alcohol to build a much stronger regulatory model for marijuana (or alcohol, for that matter).

Marijuana likely won't lead to as grave of outcomes as alcohol, since it has not been linked to physical health concerns like booze, and it's not as likely to cause accidents. But there are risks, including dependence and overuse, accidents, non-deadly overdoses that lead to mental anguish and anxiety, and marijuana use potentially causing psychotic episodes.

These are safety and health issues that for-profit marijuana businesses could ignore and exacerbate as they mass market pot, much like tobacco companies previously did and alcohol companies do now. And with each state that legalizes, the for-profit marijuana industry only grows stronger — more able to lobby lawmakers and fund ballot initiatives that enable commercialization, ever closer to becoming unstoppable.

But the pro-legalization side simply doesn't have an incentive to change track from commercialized legalization, since it's winning by promoting this model, and might raise a lot of money from the industry in the future. That may leave it up to someone in the opposition to rise up, admit defeat, and work for a compromise, like Rockefeller did in the '30s. But there's no sign of that happening anytime soon.

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