Cannabis Policy for Conservatives: the Unpalatable Versus the Disastrous

Josh Barro’s report in the New York Times starts with the debate about the Washington D.C. grow-and-give system and opens out into the broader question of whether it’s possible to create a system of cannabis controls that:

(1) Allows adult access;

(2) Substantially eliminates the harms from organized illicit business;

(3) Minimizes arrest and incarceration;

(4) Minimizes the increase in heavy use and use by minors.

Those seem to me to be the four key objectives in designing a cannabis policy. (Of course supporters of the current laws don’t regard #1 as an objective at all; tax revenue is relatively unimportant substantively, though a winning argument politically.)

Prohibition is a disaster in terms of illicit markets and law enforcement. Decriminalization might reduce the number of arrests, but wouldn’t reduce the extent of the illicit traffic (currently $40B/yr.) or do much incarceration (about 40,000 behind bars at any one time).  No one seriously proposes mounting the sort of enforcement effort that would be required to shrink the illicit trade back to the level of 20 years ago.

So prohibition is no longer a viable option, and the question is what to do instead. There’s no reason to think that commercialization on the alcohol model will have acceptable results in terms of heavy use and use by minors. “Grow and give” is one among a family of options for non-commercial legalization, alongside state-monopoly retailing, cooperative and other not-for-profit production, or production by public-benefit corporations.

Barro quotes David Frum, an adviser to an anti-legalization group, as praising grow-and-give as an “elegant” approach to finding a middle way, but doubting that it’s sustainable in the face of lobbying pressure. I share that doubt. But if a reasonable option such as grow-and-give is unsustainable, what does that say about an unreasonable option such as continued prohibition?

If the voters are given a choice between the current system and commercial legalization, it’s increasingly clear that they will choose to treat cannabis the way we treat alcohol. So if, like Frum (and me), you’re worried about the bad   consequences of commercialization, you ought to be working hard at building a political coalition to support some non-commercial option, even if (like from but not me) you would really prefer prohibition.

Twenty years ago, the anti-pot forces made the historic blunder of resisting the development of cannabis-based medications, leaving the political field clear for the “medical marijuana” bamboozlement.  Now they’re doubling down on that mistake, resisting non-commercial legalization and paving the way for the very Big Marijuana they most fear.

When the predictable upsurge in problem use arrives, the prohibition forces will have the gloomy consolation of being able to say “I told you so.” But what will console the victims of the avoidable increase in cannabis use disorder, and their parents?

John Kenneth Galbraith once defined politics as “the art of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.” I appreciate that Frum finds the thought of people getting stoned unpalatable. But I hope that he, and his allies, will figure out – before it’s too late, if it isn’t already too late – that the results of allowing cannabis to be pushed the way alcohol is pushed are likely to be disastrous.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

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