Against Commercial Cannabis

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by Mark Kleiman

Two items on my list of drug-policy reforms drew the most flak in comments:  the abolition of the minimum legal  drinking age and the non-commercial legalization of cannabis.

Note that the drinking-age idea was paired with a tenfold increase in alcohol taxes to about a dollar a drink, roughly doubling the retail price of alcohol. That, plus a zero-tolerance policy on drinking and driving for teenagers, would get you most of the benefits of the current 21-year-old MLDA (and lots of benefits the MLDA can't provide) without making tens of millions of teenagers into scofflaws.  It's a good general principle that a law that's widely broken is a bad law, and 90% of American 18-year-olds have sampled alcohol, despite the laws against it.

On the cannabis front, my plea is for a "grow-your-own" policy: consumers would be allowed to cultivate pot for their own use, to give it away, or to join small consumer-owned co-ops to produce the stuff for them. No commercial sales.

"Why not?" demanded several outraged commenters. Why allow use but not sale?

Two words provide the gist of the answer:  marketing and lobbying. A legal cannabis industry, like the legal beer industry, the legal tobacco industry, the legal fast-food and junk-food industries, and the legal gambling industry, would do everything in its power to expand its sales, including taking political action to weaken whatever regulations and minimize whatever taxes were imposed.

Well, again, why not?  What's wrong with persuading someone to engage in what would be a perfectly lawful behavior?

Nothing, if the behavior is harmless as well as lawful.  Everything, if the behavior predictably inflicts harm on the person being persuaded.

But cannabis use (like drinking, eating, and gambling) is harmless to most of the people who engage in it. Is it wrong to suggest that someone start a potentially benign activity simply because it might turn into a bad habit?

Might. "Aye, there's the rub." To the consumer, developing a bad habit is bad news. To the marketing executive, it's the whole point of the exercise. For any potentially addictive commodity or activity, the minority that gets stuck with a bad habit consumes the majority of the product. So the entire marketing effort is devoted to cultivating and maintaining the people whose use is a problem to them and a gold mine to the industry.

Take alcohol, for example. Divide the population into deciles by annual drinking volume. The top decile starts at four drinks a day, averaged year-round. That group consumes half of all the alcohol sold. The next decile does from two to four drinks a day. Those folks sop up the next thirty percent. Casual drinkers - people who have two drinks a day or less - take up only 20% of the total volume. The booze companies cannot afford to have their customers "drink in moderation."

The relationship is obvious once you think about it. One of what the beer commercials of my youth called "real beer drinkers - people who drink a case or more of beer a week" is worth two dozen people who only consume a drink a week, which is roughly the national median. 

Not everyone in those top two deciles has a diagnosable drinking problem; you could have four drinks every day and never be actively drunk. But that's not the typical pattern. Most of those folks have an alcohol abuse disorder. And they're the target market. "An innkeeper loves a drunkard," says the Yiddish proverb, "except as a son-in-law."

Since the alcoholic beverage industries are as dependent on alcohol abuse as a chronic drunk is on his wake-up drink, they fiercely resist any effective policies for curtailing it, starting with higher taxes. (Contrary to myth, taxation takes most of its bit out of heavy drinking rather than casual drinking, because alcohol is a much bigger budget item for heavy drinkers.)  Would it be technologically possible to have package clerks and bartenders check customers against a list of people who had lost their legal drinking privileges as a result of a criminal conviction for drunk driving or drunken assault?  Sure it would. Would the industry hold still for it?  No way.  

So the prospect of a legal cannabis industry working hard to produce as many chronic stoners as possible, and fighting hard against any sort of effective regulation, fills me with fear.  I don't believe that the actual tobacco companies would enter the cannabis market, but I don't doubt that the cannabis companies that would emerge from full commercial legalization would have all of morals  the tobacco outfits morals, and a less tainted product to sell.

The rate of problem use among cannabis users is lower than the rate of problem drinking among drinkers (lifetime risk of about 10% v. lifetime risk of at least 15%) but that's under conditions of illegality and high price. The risks of chronic heavy cannabis use aren't as dramatic as the risks of chronic heavy drinking - the stuff doesn't kill neurons or rot your liver, and generates less crazy behavior than beer - but that doesn't make those risks negligible. Ask any parent whose fifteen-year-old has decided that cannabis is more fun than geometry. Of the 10% of cannabis smokers who become heavy daily smokers for a while, the median duration of the first spell of heavy use (not counting the risks of relapse) is 44 months. That's not a small chunk to take out a lifetime, especially a young lifetime.

Cannabis isn't harmful enough to be worth banning. But that doesn't mean that it's safe to give America's marketing geniuses a new vice to peddle.  
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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