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The case against marijuana legalization

Opponents of legalization worry that fully allowing recreational marijuana use would make pot far too accessible and, as a result, expand its use and misuse.

The major concern is that letting for-profit businesses — “Big Marijuana” — market and sell cannabis may lead them to market aggressively to heavy pot users, who may have a drug problem. This is similar to what’s happened in the alcohol and tobacco industries, where companies make much of their profits from users with serious addiction issues. Among alcohol users, for instance, the top 10 percent of users consume, on average, more than 10 drinks each day.

Marijuana users exhibit similar patterns. In Colorado, one study of the state’s legal pot market, conducted by the Marijuana Policy Group for the state’s Department of Revenue, found the top 29.9 percent heaviest pot users in Colorado 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

Kevin Sabet, head of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, the nation’s leading anti-legalization group, explained: “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.”

Drug policy experts say there are alternatives to commercial legalization, like putting state governments in charge of marijuana production and sales, which could tame the for-profit incentive and give states more direct control over prices and who buys pot.

But legalization opponents worry that any move toward legalization will inevitably attract powerful for-profit forces, especially since the marijuana industry has already taken off in several states. “The reality is there are myriad other forces at work here,” Sabet said. “Chief among them are the very powerful forces of greed and profit. When I look at how things are set up in states like Colorado, where the marijuana industry gets a seat at the table for every state decision on marijuana policy, it troubles me.”

Given these concerns, opponents favor more limited reforms than legalization. Sabet, for example, said nonviolent marijuana users shouldn’t be incarcerated for the drug. Other critics of legalization support legalizing marijuana for medical purposes but not recreational use.

It’s rare that opponents of legalization argue for the full continuation of the current war on pot. SAM and its members, for instance, broadly agree that the current drug and criminal justice policies are far too punitive and costly, helping contribute to the mass incarceration of Americans. So while they may support some reforms, they feel that legalization simply goes too far — and could lead to worse consequences than the alternatives.