Though there is precedent for such concerns, from fossil fuels to health insurance, this has yet to happen with marijuana. The rollout in Colorado was far from perfect, but many retroactive regulations were able to be implemented to address ongoing issues like the use of home-growth practices and pesticides, selling and transporting across state lines, driving while high, driving while not-high-but-also-not-entirely-sober, standardization of dosing, and labeling. In 2014 I purchased THC-laden candy that looked identical to Sour Patch Kids, and the recommended dose was half of one piece of the candy. The potential for confusion and harm there was obvious.
By Freedman and others’ admission, the Colorado rollout was undertaken without an ideal evidence base, and without precedent to inform plans for all of the complications that would arise. It was and remains an experiment, and Canada’s will be as well—inevitably imperfect, but promising because the country is better positioned to stay in control of the substance than the United States.
While Freedman believes U.S. regulators have not become beholden to industry influence in the way of the most dystopian forecasts, the possibility should be in the minds of public-health advocates and policy makers. “We’re right in the middle of that battle,” he told me. “It’s not a fait accompli. There are plenty of things that communities can do to come together to create countervailing forces against overreach by the industry. There’s plenty that enlightened industry itself can do to keep bad actors at bay.”
Increasing the number of occasional consumers isn’t necessarily a health concern—especially if consuming marijuana replaces drinking alcohol or using other drugs. But there is concern about perverse incentives in the industry, as have been seen over the decades with tobacco and alcohol, where roughly 80 percent of the product goes to 20 percent of the users. For these people, overuse is somewhere between a concern and a serious problem.
Right now the U.S. marijuana industry is a convergence of markets, where the legal industry is still mostly siphoning business from the illegal industry. But once the black market is tapped, there can be incentive to grow that 20 percent. It’s most profitable to cultivate lifelong, heavy users. In the cases of tobacco and alcohol, the strategies were to get people to use more or to start using earlier.
So the critical balance of effective marijuana policy is to incentivize producers to make enough to meet demand, but not to substantially grow the market. In Uruguay, where marijuana went on sale at some pharmacies last year, the government-controlled supply chain has not met demand, and a national shortage has kept the black market in business. In Canada, the supply will be privatized but regulated by the federal government, and the states will be involved in retail to various degrees. Academically, this will allow comparisons between provinces that impose tighter regulations on advertising and distribution—doing more to minimize profit incentives than others. The effects on demand, crime, and health outcomes will be cited in future policies around the world, on an ever more informed march away from prohibition.