Cannabis policy has a hard time shaking off its roots in the culture wars. Since the action around non-medical legalization action so far has largely been through voter initiatives rather than conventional legislation, the argument takes place mostly in sound-bites rather than policy memos. Most reporters who cover the topic aren't experts, and that tempts them to fall back on Cheech & Chong jokes and simple contrasts.
The polarization into "pro-pot" and "anti-pot" attitudes, and "legalization" or "prohibition" positions, means that every factual claim is treated as an argument for one side or the other and topic for he-said, she-said dispute, as if there were only opinions and no ascertainable facts. As a result, people on one side or the other -- and sometimes both -- wind up furiously denying things that those who study the topic seriously regard as well-established. Here's a partial list:
1. Cannabis prohibition is broken and can't be fixed.
The $40-billion per year marijuana market has switched places with cocaine and is now the largest illicit-drug market in dollar terms. In numbers of users it is even more dominant: the 35 million people who self-report having used marijuana in the past year represent more than 80 percent of all illicit-drug users, and 70 percent of cannabis consumers take no other illicit drug.
Marijuana arrests account for nearly half of all drug arrests; incarceration for marijuana dealing is less than 10 percent of all incarceration for drug law violations, but that's still at least 30,000 people behind bars at any one time. The uptrend in cannabis use has been steady and shows no sign of abating.
The tightness of law-enforcement budgets and concerns about over-use of police authority and racial disparities in arrest rates would make any proposal to increase enforcement a non-starter. Some of the costs of prohibition could be reduced by decreasing enforcement, especially simple-possession arrests, arrests for low-level dealing and crop-eradication efforts, but locating so much economic opportunity on the wrong side of the law would still have real costs, both to the young people deprived of licit economic opportunity and to respect for the law itself. If the law against marijuana isn't being obeyed now, and there's no way to enforce it more effectively, the conclusion seems inescapable: cannabis prohibition has broken down, as alcohol prohibition broke down in the late 1920s. We ought to be debating what's going to replace it.
2. Cannabis is an abusable drug, and the rate of problem use has been soaring for two decades.
There's lots of evidence that cannabis is relatively harmless and non-abusable. Unfortunately, almost all of that evidence is out of date. Data about what happened when mostly prosperous and ambitious 19-year-olds started smoking mostly leaves, with an average THC content of 4 percent, don't have much relevance in an era when the typical smoker is much poorer, starts at 16, and is using material three or four times as potent.
In 1992, about 11 percent of people who self-reported using marijuana over the past month reported using it every day or almost every day (more than 25 days a month). Since then, that figure has risen to 40 percent. Those daily or near-daily smokers consume about three times as much cannabis per day of use as do less-frequent smokers; about half of them -- again, by their own report -- have the symptoms of Cannabis Use Disorder (using more or more often than they intend, trying and failing to cut back, finding that cannabis interferes with other things they want to do, finding that it causes conflicts with others). That's about four million people in trouble at any one time, a distant second to alcohol (about 16 million) but way ahead of all the other illegal drugs combined.
The slogan about marijuana being non-addictive hasn't changed -- plenty of legalization advocates still insist that Cannabis Use Disorder is imaginary, which would no doubt surprise the half-million people who come in for treatment for it each year -- but the reality has.
3. Legalization on the alcohol model is likely to make cannabis extremely cheap.
Of the many slang terms for cannabis, "weed" is surely among the most apposite. The plant grows almost everywhere, and it's not very hard to cultivate. Making very-high-potency super-weed is harder, but most of the cost of marijuana on the street is the cost of illegality, not the cost of the agriculture. Compared to current illicit-market and dispensary prices of around $10 per gram for fairly potent material, the "farmgate" price of cannabis legally grown at industrial scale would be well under a dollar, and perhaps as low as a dime. (A supermarket teabag, which has about as much dried plant material as a joint, costs a few pennies.)
That drastic price decline will come as a shock to the people who are investing in elaborate indoor growing facilities in the hopes that they will be able to sell a legal product at an illegal price. That doesn't happen in a competitive market.
4. Cheap cannabis is a threat to public health.
The massive rise in the prevalence of Cannabis Use Disorder no doubt has many causes, but price is surely one of them. The cost of a gram of pot hasn't changed much in 25 years, but much higher potency at the same price-per-gram means that the cost-per-hour of being stoned has fallen about a quarter of its 1992 level; a stoned hour now costs a user who hasn't built a tolerance something less than a dollar. (Figure that a gram of mid-grade cannabis now retails for about $10, that a joint has four-tenths of a gram, and that a joint will get two people stoned for three hours each: that's six stoned hours for $4 worth of cannabis.
With cannabis already a cheaper intoxicant than alcohol, the case against letting the price fall even lower seems very strong. Since there's no historical experience with very potent cannabis at very low prices, it's not possible to estimate how much heavy use would increase, but it would be no surprise if $2-per-gram retail marijuana was accompanied by another doubling in the prevalence of Cannabis Use Disorder. That wouldn't be history's greatest disaster, but it's worth avoiding if possible.
5. The interests of the industry conflict with the public interest.
The alcohol industry depends on problem drinking: 80 percent of its sales are to people who average two or more drinks per day, and 50 percent are to people who average four or more drinks per day. To put the same point somewhat differently: though most drinking episodes are not drinking binges (five or more drinks in a sitting for men, four or more for women) still 47 percent of all drinks are consumed as part of binges.
By the same token, the cannabis business -- legal or illegal -- depends on people with cannabis problems. The 20 percent of past-year users who are daily or near-daily users account for more than 80 percent of the cannabis consumed. So while the public interest is in making cannabis available for moderate use by adults, the commercial interest is in creating as many heavy users as possible. That commercial interest will be expressed in marketing and in lobbying, as it is now in the marketing and lobbying effort of the alcohol industries, unless we legalize cannabis without commercializing it.
6. There are many alternatives to current laws, and the differences matter.
On this point the advocates and opponents of legalization agree: we have to choose between an increasingly unworkable prohibition regime on the one hand and, on the other, legalization using the alcohol model of a for-profit industry of producers, processors and retailers. Offering only that false choice allows the legalizers to insist that if you don't want aggressively-marketed commercial cannabis you must be in favor of arresting pot smokers, and their opponents to insist that the only alternative to prohibition involves pot ads on the Super Bowl.
But a moment's reflection shows how absurd that is. There are many ways of making cannabis available for use by adults other than by producing it for profit and selling it in storefronts. People could be allowed to grow their own and give it away, as is the law in Washington, DC. They could be allowed to form small user co-ops -- in effect a group of people hiring someone to grow cannabis for them - like the "cannabis clubs" in Spain. The industry could be limited to non-profit organizations, like the Red Cross in blood supply or Vanguard or TIAA-CREF in financial services. Cannabis could be sold in state stores, ideally operated by the health department, with the store managers evaluated on giving good advice rather than maximizing sales. Any of these would avoid creating opportunities to get rich by cultivating cannabis dependency among unwary users. Yet none of those options will be on the ballot this year anywhere in the U.S.
Even accepting a for-profit model -- despite how badly that model has served us in the cases of alcohol and tobacco -- there's lots of room for improvement over the systems now in use in Colorado, Washington State, and Oregon and the similar systems proposed for California, Michigan, and Massachusetts. High taxes -- based on THC content, rather than the weight of the plant matter or the retail price -- could prevent the otherwise-inevitable price collapse. Strict regulations on marketing effort -- if a way can be found around the absurd "commercial free speech" doctrine invented by the Supreme Court -- would have direct effects on the volume and content of advertising and indirect effects on the industry's influence on the mass media. Sales personnel could be licensed and required to have training in both pharmacology and in the prevention of substance use disorder. Users could be allowed to set monthly purchase limits for themselves, with vendors required to enforce those limits, to improve the chances that their long-term interest in not developing a bad cannabis habit will prevail over the short-term impulse to get altered tonight. (And yes, I'd propose the same for alcohol.)
Why this matters
As we continue the amusing but ultimately futile argument about whether to legalize cannabis, we're missing the far more important argument about how to legalize it. The stakes are substantial: the decisions we make now -- especially a decision to allow a rich and powerful industry to develop -- will be hard to change in the future. That's why we're holding the Cannabis Science & Policy Summit in New York April 17-18.
This post is part of a series produced by The Cannabis Science and Policy Summit (New York City, April 17-18). The Summit is a discussion of what is happening, what is likely to happen, and what should be done in the world of cannabis legalization. For more information about The Cannabis Science and Policy Summit, visit www.cannabis-summit.org.