The WaPo gets the right answer for the wrong reason

I’m glad to see the Washington Post endorsing the idea that the feds should let Washington State and Colorado go ahead and experiment with legal marijuana. “For now, the federal government does not need to stage an aggressive intervention, one way or the other. It can wait, watch and enforce the most worrisome violations as they occur.” Precisely.

Still, I wish that the Post, and the rest of the media, would get clear on what the question actually is. The Post editorial starts: “Small-time marijuana use will soon be legal in Colorado and Washington state.” That’s true, but it’s far from the whole truth. Yes, the Colorado and Washington initiatives did legalize (not just decriminalize) possession for personal use, and that’s important. But they did much more than that.

The voters in those two states have instructed the authorities to establishe regulated systems of commercial marijuana production and sale, more or less on the alcohol model. So the question is not whether the feds are going to start busting kids in Boulder for having a joint; of course not. The question is whether they’re going to stand by and watch as substantial aboveground industries develop to engage in activity that remains felonious under federal law.

Along with the editors of the Post, I think a hands-off stance is justified; the feds can crack down on the relatively small number of licensed growers and sellers at any time if that becomes necessary. Therefore, there’s no need to be hasty about it. Instead, the feds should bargain with Washington and Colorado authorities for rules, and state-and-local enforcement actions, to keep interstate traffic down to a minimum in return for federal acquiescence in allowing intra-state commerce.

But the whole discussion makes no sense unless it starts by recognizing the radical nature of the Washington and Colorado laws. They’re not just about legalizing “small-time use.” They’re about creating the marijuana equivalents of the beer industry. Yes, marijuana is a less hazardous drug than alcohol. But that’s a pretty low bar to clear. A badly-managed legalization might or might not be better than our current badly-managed prohibition. But it wouldn’t be pretty. This one is worth getting right.

Comments

  1. Frank says

    Mark:

    You are right on how radical these initiatives are. I have often mentioned your point that the “medicinal” marajuana regime in CA is more loose than what is in The Netherlands (although informally I think things are pretty loose in NE outside the cafes).

    I do disagree that a badly-managed legalization could be worse than our current prohibition; the later is such a social waste.

    Frank

  2. John R. says

    How is it a social waste? Marijuana users are smoking away without much problem now.

    The tobacco and beer industries are thrilled with what just happened in WA and CO. And the marijuana denialists of today are no better than climate change denialists or the tobacco denialists of the 1940s.

    • Mark Kleiman says

      Only if you count 800,000 arrests a year for simple possession as “not much problem.” Or if you think that $15 billion a year in criminal revenue is “not much problem.”

      As to the tobacco and beer industries, they’ve been long-time supporters of prohibitions on drugs other than the ones they sell. No reason to think they would succeed in the cannabis trade, even if they were to try.

      • says

        So there wouldn´t be any difficulty in banning cross-ownership, which would give the marijuana industry access to deep marketing pockets and too much expertise in managing regulators?

        • Brett Bellmore says

          I think there would be major difficulties with that; Hasn’t the administration pissed of Catholics enough already? ;)

      • Freeman says

        Only if you count 800,000 arrests a year for simple possession as “not much problem.” Or if you think that $15 billion a year in criminal revenue is “not much problem.”

        Mark seems to be arguing against what he said just the other day: “High tobacco taxes produce illicit markets, and the need for enforcement. Not the end of the world.”.

  3. Uncle Vinny says

    “Instead, the feds should bargain with Washington and Colorado authorities for rules, and state-and-local enforcement actions, to keep interstate traffic down to a minimum in return for federal acquiescence in allowing intra-state commerce.”

    Isn’t it also probable that they’ll pick some individual business or state agency as a violator of Federal law, and take them to court? The case would work its way up through the courts, where the constitutionality of marijuana criminalization would be tested. How is it possible for the Feds not to eventually settle the law question of a state going rogue?

    • Mark Kleiman says

      The constitutionality of marijuana criminalization has been tested, and upheld. I’m not saying the Court was right, but that was the ruling.

      • Uncle Vinny says

        I think this means that I really need to buy your book, because I still don’t understand how the Feds can bargain with dastardly lawbreakers like this!

  4. Freeman says

    Yes, marijuana is a less hazardous drug than alcohol. But that’s a pretty low bar to clear.

    Low bar? The ratio between pleasant buzz and lethal dose is only about 1:4. Much havoc is wreaked by people under the influence of alcohol. At high purity levels, it’s even a serious fire hazard. You’d be hard-pressed to name a more hazardous drug in common use. Avoiding the mistake of deeming marijuana highly dangerous (which obviously isn’t working any more) by downplaying the hazards of alcohol in order to conflate the two isn’t helpful to the debate.

    A badly-managed legalization might or might not be better than our current badly-managed prohibition. But it wouldn’t be pretty. This one is worth getting right.

    We’ll probably get badly-managed legalization, and it probably won’t look that much different than our current badly-managed prohibition aside from the decriminalization aspect. All the policy wonks seem to want to continue to support the black market through excessive taxation.