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A better way to legalize marijuana

States are generally following the same model for marijuana legalization. They don’t have to.

Marijuana activists hold up a giant inflatable cigarette sporting the words, “Congress, pass the joint!”
Marijuana activists hold a 51-foot inflatable joint at the US Capitol on October 8, 2019, during a rally calling on Congress to pass cannabis reform legislation.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images

As marijuana legalization has grown into a political triumph, a standard model has emerged for how it should be done: “Regulate marijuana like alcohol” is the slogan that has dominated legalization campaigns since Colorado became one of the first two states to legalize pot.

This is commercialized legalization. For-profit companies grow, cultivate, and sell marijuana. Some companies are expanding across state and national lines and doing more advertising. Soon enough, the market for marijuana will look a lot like the market for alcohol, with large companies spreading brands to make big profits while smaller, boutique operations take off here and there.

So far, 18 states have commercial legalization, and there are fights in a handful more states as well as in Washington, DC, to enact the model there.

Some experts and advocates don’t love this model. There are genuine concerns that the current commercial model of legalization will lead to “Big Marijuana”: a large industry that, similar to the tobacco, alcohol, and opioid industries, has a powerful financial incentive to market and sell its product to as many people as possible, no matter the consequences for consumers or the public more broadly.

But marijuana legalization — and alcohol regulation, for that matter — doesn’t have to look like this. As other states move to legalize cannabis, it’s possible to follow an alternative model that might be able to achieve the same goal with fewer downsides.

Alcohol regulations aren’t working well for alcohol

An obvious question is: If the standard commercial model works for alcohol, why can’t it work for a newly legal drug like cannabis, too?

But this model doesn’t work well for alcohol. The nation’s second-most popular drug (after caffeine) is linked to nearly 100,000 deaths a year in the US — about the same as all overdose deaths, and more than the combined death tolls of car crashes and murders.

A different model could help. Previous research, for example, found that states that maintained a government-operated monopoly for alcohol kept prices higher, reduced access to youth, and cut overall levels of use — all benefits to public health.

Marijuana is nowhere as dangerous as alcohol. You can quite literally drink yourself to death; the same doesn’t apply to marijuana. So it’s almost certain that legalizing marijuana the same way won’t lead to all the same bad outcomes.

Still, there are some risks. A thorough review of the research, by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, found that marijuana poses a variety of possible downsides, which can include a higher risk of respiratory problems (if smoked), an increased risk of developing schizophrenia and other psychoses, an increased likelihood of car crashes, a general decrease in social achievement, and, potentially, some harm to fetuses in the womb.

There’s also the real risk of addiction and overuse. As Stanford’s Keith Humphreys put it to the Atlantic, “In large national surveys, about one in 10 people who smoke [marijuana] say they have a lot of problems. They say things like, ‘I have trouble quitting. I think a lot about quitting and I can’t do it. I smoked more than I intended to. I neglect responsibilities.’ … People will say, ‘Oh, that’s just you fuddy-duddy doctors.’ Actually, no. It’s millions of people who use the drug who say that it causes problems.”

None of that is to make the argument for prohibition, which produces its own problems: millions of arrests, deep racial disparities, and the lifelong harm of a permanent criminal record.

But if the model for alcohol hasn’t worked well with alcohol, why immediately replicate it with marijuana? Maybe the government or nonprofits can handle supply chains instead of for-profit corporations. Maybe people can grow, gift, and sell pot to each other, but mass commercial production is illegal. Maybe taxes can be way higher for marijuana than they have been for alcohol to deter excessive use. (And if some of these ideas succeed, they could be applied to the alcohol market, too.)

Marijuana has relatively few risks, so getting this wrong might not be the end of the world. But if it can make legalization go more smoothly, why not explore other options?

What alternative marijuana legalization models could look like

In 2015, a group of drug policy experts put together a guide to marijuana legalization, and the final report (published by the RAND Corporation) detailed a dozen alternatives to current marijuana prohibition.

A chart showing alternatives to marijuana legalization. RAND Corporation

The 12 alternatives range from tougher prohibition measures (labeled “extreme”) to total legalization without any real regulation (also “extreme”). Among the ideas:

  • Communal own-grow and distribution: Under this model, there would be no formal marijuana shops and businesses. Instead, people would be allowed to grow, distribute, and use their own marijuana on a less formal basis. This would inherently limit the ability of big businesses to take off. (This is similar to how marijuana legalization currently works in Washington, DC, although with some notable loopholes.)
  • Government operates the supply chain: Much as some state and local governments do with alcohol, this model would put the government in charge of distributing marijuana — Uncle Sam would be a weed dealer. This might sound ridiculous, but the idea is that with less incentive to simply sell as much marijuana as possible, the government would have to weigh public health, safety, and other potential problems along with incentives for profit.
  • Nonprofit organizations: Instead of allowing for-profit companies to oversee the industry, this legalization model would let only nonprofits into the industry. This would, the thinking goes, limit the profit incentives to market and sell as much marijuana as possible regardless of the negative consequences.

There are seven other options in between the two extremes of legalization with no regulation and total prohibition, including standard commercial legalization, reduced criminal penalties, and a Dutch-style system for retail (where local outlets, typically coffee-shop-like establishments, can sell small amounts of marijuana but no one else can).

Within these models, there are also plenty of questions that different places should consider: Does a legalization framework address at least some of the damage done by the war on drugs? Does it provide economic opportunities to those who need it most? What is the primary goal or benefit of legalization, and how do you maximize that while minimizing the unintended consequences or downsides?

More than propping up any one idea, the argument of the RAND report is that there really are a bunch of alternatives.

And as the country pushes forward toward legalization — with major political figures like former Attorney General Eric Holder arguing the US is on a “glide path” to reform — it’s worth taking these alternatives seriously.

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