The Political Schizophrenia of Marijuana Legalization

Our friends at Washington Monthly have provided a vivid example of a piquant feature of drug legalization debates.

As a group, the editors and writers at Washington Monthly have been broadly supportive of the proposition that we should regulate marijuana like alcohol. Yet the current issue carries Tim Heffernan’s expose on the monopolistic, addiction-generating, profit-grubbing ways of…you guessed it, the alcohol industry.

I am not picking on our WashMo friends as some sort of bizarre exception to the rule, they are very much in the left-wing mainstream: Strongly convinced that marijuana should be regulated like alcohol, while simultaneously being completely distrustful of the very industry they are holding up as a model (this is even moreso the case when the comparision is made to the legal tobacco industry).

Meanwhile on the political right, a parallel role reversal occurs. Most conservatives want to punch those dirty hippees who are trying to push back government control and make way for a private sector business because, damn it, that’s, that’s…wait a minute, that’s what WE always say is a good idea! Those damn hippees stole our playbook!

What is going on? Why do liberals who are normally skeptical of corporate power and aware of the limits of government regulation become wide-eyed innocents when singing the virtues of a legal marijuana industry? Why do government-hating pro-business conservatives suddenly want the government to stamp out all the private sector marijuana entrepreneurs?

Way too many aspects of U.S. politics are explained as being a “legacy of the 1960s and 1970s”. But…this is a legacy of the 1960s and 1970s. The cultural coding of marijuana as a thing that liberals like and conservatives hate is so strong that each group tends to ignore all its other beliefs on this issue and adopt the other’s traditional stance.

I am not a baby boomer, so the odds are I will never get this at a gut level because I wasn’t “there”. But it still fascinates me as a sociopolitical phenomenon.


    • Keith Humphreys says

      If that were true, the logical position would be complete decriminalization of use and/or state-provided marijuana, such as Uruguay is proposing.

      • Jamie says

        …which is what I, personally, think is the right thing.

        It seems you’re beating people up for not being ideologues, for accepting half a loaf. Maybe that sort of purity makes some people happy. But it is weird to a member of the Reality-Based Community to chastise others for attempting (and succeeding, at least by my count) to make things slightly better.

        Maybe evil Big Alcohol sucks. Maybe I’m weird, as a mostly liberal person who doesn’t mind capitalism. But it would certainly be weird to me to prefer a world in which alcohol drinkers are locked up in boxes and we pay people to keep drinkers locked up.

        • Keith Humphreys says

          It seems you’re beating people up for not being ideologues

          I am not “beating anyone up”, I called the inversion of positions fascinating (because it is) not immoral.

          • says

            I and probably others read you differently, as suggesting an equivalence between the two groups in their inconsistencies when for many of us there is neither equivalence or inconsistency on the part of the ‘left’ and irrationality and mean spiritedness on the part of the right. Tobacco, after all, has been proven to be harmful and powerfully addictive in ways that marijuana has not.

      • max says

        That would be my position, yes. It’s been my position since ever (the 80′s, more or less). I don’t trust big alcohol or big tobacco, but I have never been on board with the whole puritanical thing anyways, whether from D’s or R’s. (For the record, I still held the whole record ratings thing against Al Gore in a number of campaigns, and while that’s ancient history, I haven’t forgotten, just like I haven’t forgotten the V-chip or the encryption thing or what have you.) I think old whathisname Bloomberg in New York is a borderline fascist. Taxing the any of those substances is fine, however, as long as they don’t get ridiculous about it.

        If there were an election in which the only issue was alcohol banning or what have you, and the R was pro-legalization and the D was anti-, then I might (probably would) pull the lever for the R. But that never happens, because most elections are fought over more important issues in which I never side with R’s and/or the R is all puritanical about something else.

        The argument that the guy seems to be making over at WashMo (have only glanced at the article) is that we have a bimonopoly operating in borderline anti-competitive ways, and I am against that, as I would be against that in any industry. Cheap beer is fine with me, however.

        Perhaps the above would code Republican (?) or Libertarian, but in my now-long experience, libertarians are committed to more money for rich people first and foremost, and marijuana legalization and the like is just a loss-leader for pimping the real hardcore stuff. (Radley Balko is, as always, the honorable exception.)

        ['You can sell me, barely, on banning crack, because that stuff is so toxic in the typical forms.']

  1. Ebenezer Scrooge says

    It’s also worth noting that the regulation of the alcohol industry was a phenomenal success, in its time. The three-tier system was intended to get the mob out of the alcohol industry, and it mostly succeeded. This was quite a feat, because most other efforts to get the mob out of industries in which it was entrenched have been only partially successful. The three-tier system might be dysfunctional today, but that often happens with outmoded regulatory systems. It worked well in its time.

    We would have the same problem with legalizing marijuana today. Flat-out legalization probably won’t drive the gangsters out. Some form of regulation will prove essential. There is something to learn from alcohol industry regulation. I don’t know if the tobacco industry has as much to teach.

    • rachelrachel says

      The regulation of the alcohol industry after the repeal of Prohibition was successful in getting organized crime out of alcohol distribution and in eliminating the problems associated with the black market.

      However, it was a disaster when it came to dealing with the problems associated with alcohol consumption itself. The period from the end of Prohibition in 1933 to the early 1980s saw an almost monotonic increase in alcohol consumption. Since 1980 the general trend has been mostly downward.

  2. Keith Humphreys says

    The cultural phenomenon, I might have added, is not unique to pot. If you say that the government is regulating the workplace to protect the health of employees, liberals instinctively tend to be pro-regulation and conservatives tend to be anti-regulation. But if the same case involves pregnant women and the regs are designed to protect a fetus, the two sides will often switch their usual stances (with of course exceptions on both sides, some people apply their standing principles more consistently than others).

    • NCG says

      Interesting. Can you protect a fetus without protecting the woman carrying it? What would be an example? Perhaps this is why companies just fire the pregnant women and get rid of the whole problem. Do you mean that liberals get mad when the government protects women out of a job? ‘Cause I can think of solutions for that. Or would discrimination be the real reason for having the pro-fetus reg in the first place? And couldn’t we just protect all workers from unreasonable dangers and poisons? Two birds.

      I’m sure I am often inconsistent, I’m just not following you here.

      • Keith Humphreys says

        NCG: There was a real case like this a few years ago but I don’t know the key words to find it with Google. Gist IIRC is that a chemical company said that pregnant women could not work in one part of the plant because of a low-prevalence chemical that did not affect adults but could they thought cause a birth defect in a fetus. Because a number of the jobs were in that part of the plant, it meant that it was harder women of child-bearing years to get a job at the company.

        • politicalfootball says

          I bet you’re Googling “pregnant”. Try “child-bearing”. American Cyanamid and Dupont both had cases.

          (A more complete version of this comment, with links, seems to have been et by the system. My apologies if it shows up out of the ether and makes this comment redundant.)

        • NCG says

          Interesting. I would guess though that some kind of leave or transfer policies ought to take care of such situations, temporarily. Though, once you add in the breastfeeding, I guess it’s not that temporary.

          My guess though would be that Dems would only be against this if it were really a sneaky way to discriminate against women, which wouldn’t be hard to find out. Women who used birth control should be able to have those jobs if they want.

          Though, I am skeptical that chemicals can be bad for babies and not everyone else. That sounds like hooey to me. I mean, except that we probably have super-low standards for general worker safety. But I suppose it’s possible.

          Anyway, thanks for explaining!

  3. Daniel says

    Where did the Monthly say it supported the proposition that we should regulate marijuana like alcohol? Furthermore, the Monthly article about Beer just argues that current regulations aren’t working. That doesn’t mean regulation itself is a bad idea. Policies evolve over time, when the regulation doesn’t work it’s time to change the regulations. It’s not that US alcohol policy is perfect; it’s just that it’s better than our policy toward marijuana.

  4. Herschel says

    Right wingers in the U.S. favor the exercise of state power when its object is to control individual behavior, limit the scope of voluntary associations (which are an extension of individual autonomy), and invade other countries. To the extent that this is a legacy of the 1960s and 1972s, it is entirely about the Vietnam war.

  5. Lars says

    Strongly convinced that marijuana should be regulated like alcohol, while simultaneously being completely distrustful of the very industry they are holding up as a model…
    Why do liberals who are normally skeptical of corporate power and aware of the limits of government regulation become wide-eyed innocents when singing the virtues of a legal marijuana industry?
    Ignoring the straw-man caricature of liberals in the second quote, what is supposed to be the contradiction here? What exactly is so self-evidently illogical that one would have to be schizophrenic to believe? Someone thought you were smart enough to be hired as a professor; surely you can find a way to reconcile the two positions.

  6. BM says

    My favorite position—which I first heard of on this blog, but it doesn’t come up often—is the “legal to grow your own, legal to give away, illegal to sell” model. This is the hippie-est possible solution. No police state. No profit-making, market-manipulating, lobbyist-hiring corporations. A product whose nominal price is zero, that friends will exchange for free or barter. Plus, it promotes gardening. Was there ever any traction behind this approach?

    • joel hanes says

      This is the approach I’d support. It drives the price drastically down (because it eliminates artificial scarcity), which gets the crooks out of the business.

      There’s even precedent in the alcohol laws: in many states it’s legal to make up to N gallons of wine or beer yourself, for your own consumption or to give away, but which you may not sell.

      IMHO, it’s a whole lot easier to grow acceptable quality cannabis than to make acceptable wine or beer.

      I’d worry more about enforcement problems (growing more than limit and selling) except that one wouldn’t be able to get anything like today’s prices. If there’s only a little money to be made in illegal mass production and distribution, it’s hard to see how it would be worth the legal risk.

      • Keith Humphreys says

        There’s even precedent in the alcohol laws: in many states it’s legal to make up to N gallons of wine or beer yourself, for your own consumption or to give away, but which you may not sell.

        This was the policy for much of alcohol Prohibition, I believe.

        • Freeman says

          Plus ca change…

          Legal and illegal home brewing was popular during Prohibition. Limited amounts of wine and hard cider were permitted to be made at home. Some commercial wine was still produced in the U.S., but was only available through government warehouses for use in religious ceremonies, mainly for communion. “Malt and hop” stores popped up across the country and some former breweries turned to selling malt extract syrup, ostensibly for baking and “beverage” purposes.

          Whiskey could be obtained by prescription from medical doctors. The labels clearly warned that it was strictly for medicinal purposes and any other uses were illegal, but even so doctors freely wrote prescriptions and drug-stores filled them without question, so the number of “patients” increased dramatically. No attempt was made to stop this practice, so many people got their booze this way. Over a million gallons were consumed per year through freely given prescriptions.

          Sound familiar? How’d that work out?

          • joel hanes says

            I guess I’m confused. Are you attributing the social pathologies of Prohibition to the legal exceptions that allowed home production ?

            We have already experienced forty years of much more complete prohibition of marijuana than we ever had for alchohol; whatever social ills that cannabis prohibition will cause, it will already have caused. And indeed, there are many; my claim is that relaxing the law will tend to mitigate some of them.

            But I’m puzzled why Freeman seems to think that relaxing the laws on personal cannabis production will produce or exacerbate the same social ill effects that were historically produced by outlawing booze. The starting points are different; the steps taken in opposite directions; and the social patterns of consumption very different.

          • Freeman says

            Perhaps “how’d that play out?” might have been a better choice of words.

            My point is that while I’m happy to see any movement in the direction of legalization, half-baked “legalization” measures that look just like alcohol prohibition aren’t going to cut it. They didn’t do enough to mitigate the ills of prohibition then, and they won’t now. How’d it play out? The people asserted their freedom to choose to enjoy alcohol all during prohibition and finally demanded legal recognition of that right, and they eventually won it. Same thing is happening right now with cannabis. Witness CO and WA’s recent legalization moves — they both already had legal marijuana “for medicinal purposes only”, but it apparently wasn’t enough. Good for them. Domino effect to come…

    • Josh says

      Sure, that works for us here in Mendocino County, but those who don’t have the space to grow it will still be forced to buy it. This will essentially criminalize MJ only for a certain segment of society.

  7. Matthew Meyer says

    I wonder what a Big Marijuana would look like.

    Could you convince most of the market to prefer machine-harvested and -processed flowers, or pre-rolled joints?

    Also, might there not be aspects of cannabis as a cultural phenomenon (if not a botanical one) that would favor a very differently structured production system?

    For example, cannabis connoisseurs appreciate herb that is carefully hand trimmed and minimally handled to preserve both its aesthetic and drug properties. Perhaps under a legal regime we’d see a price crash for mass-produced Big Marijuana schwag, and a niche market for cannabis produced in the labor-intensive way that much of it is now done.

    I’d be careful making assumptions that companies like Philip Morris and Anheuser-Busch will spring up around marijuana. Not that changes in scale and such are not bound to impact things, but we went through a historical progression from regional brewers to consolidated corporations to today’s more diverse market, with craft and micro brews commanding a respectable market share. It would be unreasonable to expect this to repeat exactly; surely cannabis will have something of its own history as a mass commodity.

    • rachelrachel says

      A “respectable market share” is about five percent in 2011. The beer market is dominated by a very few small players.

      • Freeman says

        A “respectable market share” is about five percent in 2011.

        Craft brews taste much better and cost considerably more than generic beer. Those of us who consume them (they get 100% of my market share, such as it is) typically do so in moderation. Personally, I rarely have more than two when I occasionally choose to enjoy a taste. That other swill they call “beer” is for the folks who drink it by the 6, 12, or 30-pack and care considerably more about the effect than the flavor. Even if both groups of consumers were of equal size (they aren’t), the generic stuff would enjoy a commanding market-share. The expanded freedom to market craft brews is a relatively recent development. Taking all this into consideration, I have plenty of respect for a five percent market share, and with a wide and growing variety of craft beer available, I don’t have any reason to worry that it isn’t “respectable” enough.

    • Keith Humphreys says

      For example, cannabis connoisseurs appreciate herb that is carefully hand trimmed and minimally handled to preserve both its aesthetic and drug properties.

      This was the reasoning behind American Spirit tobacco, which few people know is now owned by RJ Reynolds. It is not a difficult trick for a deep pocketed industry to become the majority owner of the craft niche, or even to create companies that sound different but are in fact part of the whole.

  8. GeoffBr says

    “As a group, the editors and writers at Washington Monthly have been broadly supportive of the proposition that we should regulate marijuana like alcohol. Yet the current issue carries Tim Heffernan’s expose on the monopolistic, addiction-generating, profit-grubbing ways of…you guessed it, the alcohol industry.”

    I daresay that the editors and writers of the Washington Monthly believe that marijuana should be “regulated, liked alcohol,” not “regulated like alcohol.” Liberals generally believe that regulation is required in a market economy, but pointing out that not all regulation is equally effective or that regulations sometimes need to be strengthened does not strike me as hypocrisy.

    • rachelrachel says

      The Colorado voters just passed “Amendment 64: The Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act of 2012,” and the text of the amendment describes a system that is clearly modeled after how alcohol is regulated in various states, supporting the comma-less interpretation.

      The slogan “regulate marijuana like alcohol” has been around longer than the Colorado initiative.

      • GeoffBr says

        Rachelrachel, I was referring to the specific nature of regulations that are promulgated, not the general system.

  9. rachelrachel says

    I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make, but I keep getting these flyers in the mail for fundraising events for the Drug Policy Alliance.

    Almost always, among their lists of sponsors are liquor companies. Sometimes the event even takes place in a drinking place.

  10. Daniel says

    Senators are Congressmen. Representatives and Senators are different. But both are members of Congress.

  11. rachelrachel says

    So far in these comments, nobody has come out in favor of regulating marijuana like alcohol and explaining why they think it’s the best way to do it.

    Not why it’s better than criminalization, but why it would be better than, say, the Uruguayan model.

    • jhb says

      The problem I have with your formulation is “best way to do it.”

      The current state of alcohol regulation in America is problematic, but it’s problematic in a broader cultural context: we have a capitalist society that heavily values both personal autonomy and the ability to monetize elements of culture, and somewhat less heavily values protecting people from negative consequences and keeping the government out of business. What we have now in terms of alcohol sales is a suboptimal but functional compromise on those positions and one that, plausibly, can only be tweaked at the margins, not refigured completely.

      The “best” model for marijuana, from the liberal perspective, would in fact probably be something like what Uruguay is moving towards: a government-driven system in which commercial activity is heavily constrained and the purpose of the distribution network is primarily to drive out illegal vendors rather than to be directly profitable. But such a model is also broadly incompatible with those cultural values we’re working inside — nobody is going to expend the capital necessary to push for socialist government marijuana.

      Given that context, regulating marijuana like alcohol is a very reasonable presumed compromise — it’d be dramatically superior to the current situation, it’d offer room to progressively restrict commercial marijuana in the future, and because marijuana is less corrosive than alcohol it’d likely be less problematic overall than the alcohol industry.

  12. Freeman says

    I think we should regulate marijuana like coffee. It is similarly mild in intoxication and physical addiction effects, and similarly not-so-mild in psychological dependency effects. I’ve seen lots of exposes on “monopolistic, addiction-generating, profit-grubbing ways” of the alcohol industry, but none come to mind on the coffee industry. So coffee industry regulation must be working quite well indeed, and I see no reason to believe that model wouldn’t translate well to cannabis. As a bonus of admittedly limited value, my position allows me to criticize the alcohol industry without much fear of being labeled schizophrenic by those who don’t share it.

  13. Joe says

    This only looks schizophrenic if you assume the issue is a binary question of good vs evil. I think of things like this on a continuum: total prohibition is worst; control by the government is next-worst; control by large corporations is around the middle; a decentralized industry with lots of competitors is good; a diversified system of commercial interests and local production is best.

    I’ll support any step in the right direction. I’m willing to make a temporary alliance with big businesses, if the country becomes more sane as a result.

    • John G says

      It’s not at all clear to me why control by government is worse than control by large corporations (of the kind described in the article in the original post here). A state-owned distribution system can work well, and get distribution to smaller communities that big corporations would not be interested in. There is a distinction between government production and government distribution, however. In Canada government controls the distribution of alcohol in most provinces, and in most provinces fairly satisfactorily. It controls the manufacture of medial marijuana, generally very badly. YMMV