Promoting Cannabis Use Disorder in California

If someone wanted to write a law to increase the prevalence of that problem, it would look a lot like the Adult Use of Marijuana Act

The Sean Parker/Gavin Newsom Adult Use of Marijuana Act has now qualified for the California Ballot this November. The measure – 62 pages of legal prose – has many provisions, but only a few of them are directly relevant to what seems to me ought to be the central goal here: making cannabis available for moderate use by adults while minimizing the growth of cannabis use disorder and preventing an increase in the number of adolescent users or a fall in the median age at first use (now 15-16).

The proposition provides for:

  • Full commercial legalization, plus home-grow of up to six plants per household;
  • Licensed production and sale, but no provision allowing the state to manage the quantity produced;
  • A tax of $9.75 per ounce (33 cents per gram) of flowers, plus a 15% sales tax on the retail price (in addition to ordinary sales tax);
  • Bans on direct sales to minors and possession by minors
  • A nominal ban on marketing to minors (except through channels mostly consumed by adults);
  • A ban on false advertising, but no requirement that advertising contain warnings;
  • No required vendor training or prevention activity by sellers;
  • No option for users to limit the amount of cannabis they can be sold in the course of a month;
  • Required quantitative labeling for chemical content;
  • Anodyne warning labels, not mentioning the risk of cannabis use disorder;
  • Money for prevention and treatment;
  • Money to run the regulatory system;
  • No money for enforcement;
  • A three-tier license system (i.e., a system that requires a distributor between the grower and the retailer, as in the beer industry);
  • Permission for home delivery.

There are also a number of provisions – including one that restricts licenses to those who have been California residents since the beginning of 2015 – designed to protect or enrich various incumbent players in the cannabis industry.

The key provisions in terms of preventing substance use disorder are the ones dealing with production, taxation, and marketing. All of those provisions favor the expansion of the market at the expense of public health. Unlimited production guarantees that farmgate prices will settle down at something below $1 per gram; add to that 33 cents in excise and a 15% sales tax, and the result will be prices  substantially lower than those in Washington State, where some stores now offer highly potent cannabis (claimed to be 18% THC by weight) for $95/ounce. That’s less, in inflation-adjusted terms, than my college classmates were paying around 1970. And today’s material is about 4-6 times as strong as what they were buying then.

To put it differently: A typical joint contains about 0.4 gram of cannabis. $95/oz. is $3.50/gm. So a joint of “Uncle Ike’s Budget Bud” in Seattle has about $1.40 worth of cannabis in it. At 18% THC – aka “one-hit weed” – that should get three naïve users wrecked out of their gourds (if you’ll allow me the use of technical terminology) for about three hours each. That comes to about 15 cents per stoned hour, making cannabis far more cost-effective than even very cheap beer on a per-hour basis.

Under the proposed law, expect to see California weed even cheaper than that within three years. (That would probably displace illicitly-grown California product in the still-illicit interstate trade; why should a dealer in St. Louis bother with buying bulk weed when he can get packed, tested, labeled product for $1600/lb. just by sending out some smurfs?)

At current national average pricing – about three times the “Budget Bud” level – the rate of cannabis use disorder has already soared. In 1992, about 10% of people who reported using cannabis the past month reported having used it on 26 or more days that month. That number is up to 40%. Of those daily/near-daily users, about half – by their own self-report – meet diagnostic criteria for cannabis use disorder: they’re using more frequently and in greater quantity than they intend to, they’ve tried and failed to cut back, and they find that cannabis use is interfering with other things they care about and causing conflict with significant others in their lives. Just over 4 million residents of the U.S. currently report meeting those criteria. (Aren’t you glad you know that cannabis is natural and non-habit-forming? Because if you didn’t know that, you might not be able to guess it from the actual data.)

If someone wanted to write a law to increase the prevalence of that problem, it would look a lot like the Adult Use of Marijuana Act. In other words, this is horrible, awful, very bad, no-good drug policy.

But it’s obviously going to pass. A solid majority of Californians wants legal cannabis; this is a much better written piece of legislation than Proposition 19, which almost passed in 2010; it will have more-than-adequate funding; it’s supported by respectable people, including the Lieutenant Governor; and it’s on the ballot in November of a Presidential year, which will maximize turnout, especially among younger voters who are most enthusiastic about cannabis legalization.

The only thing that could have stopped this law, or one like it, from being written into the statute books by the voters would have been for the Governor and the Legislature to pre-empt it by legalizing in some more public-health-friendly way. But the Governor has his political head stuck in 1980, and legislators don’t want to fall foul of police and prosecutors. So they chose – as a majority in Congress is now choosing at the national level – to let the political process walk us step by step toward truly lousy policy, rather than standing up, taking some heat, and doing their jobs.

That leaves the voters with a choice between the existing unworkable quasi-legalization in the form of a corrupt “medical marijuana” system and a formal legalization designed to make the drug problem worse.

I’m glad I left.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.