Public opinion on cannabis: Is it “Game Over”?

Public opinion on cannabis legalization has been trending positive since sometime in the late 1990s. By a couple of years ago, it was just about break-even. But in the latest Gallup poll, the “pro” side has moved to an almost-20-point advantage, 58 to 39.

Of course this calls for some caveats.

1. The question, as asked, was about legalizing use, not production and sale.

2. With a sample size of only 1000, some of the movement might be noise rather than signal. The Galston-Dionne analysis of Pew Center data from earlier in the year shows a more closely divided country; again, it’s an open question whether that difference is measurement error or real change over a few months.

3. Bad outcomes in Washington or Colorado might reverse the trend.

All of that said, the new numbers are enough to move my probability distribution. For a while now, I’ve been predicting national legalization sometime in Hillary Clinton’s second term, but without much conviction and with the caveat that the trend in public opinion would have to continue in order to make that prediction come true. Now I’d have to say it will come true unless the trend were somehow to reverse.

Note also that at some point positive feedback takes over. Being for pot legalization has a different social meaning when it’s the clear majority view. The polling results will therefore influence the behavior of some survey respondents and voters directly. Moreover, politicians and other opinion leaders shift their announced (and perhaps actual) views in response to perceived shifts in voter attitudes, that in turn will shift the beliefs of some voters.

If the question of whether to legalize now seems largely settled, that makes the much-less-debated question of how to legalize even more topical. Some of the smarter opponents of cannabis have figured this out, and are now looking for ways of limiting the increase in drug abuse likely to follow legal availability. However, career and ideological interests and group ties are likely to lead the majority of the active drug warriors to keep fighting what now seems like an unwinnable battle, telling one another that legalization is sure to be such a disaster that the public will demand re-prohibition. By doing so, the warriors will help to ensure that the legal system that eventually arises will be over-commercialized, under-regulated, and under-taxed.

This would simply repeat the mistake they made in opposing the medical use of cannabis. While the warriors kept chanting “Cheech and Chong medicine,” the pot advocates rolled right over them. Rien appris, rien oublié.

Update Andrew Sullivan strikes a triumphal note. Hard to fault him for that. But goddammit, “less harmful than alcohol” and “not harmful to most of its users” do not add up to “harmless.” Adolescents spin out on cannabis and wreck their academic careers. People of all ages do stupid things while stoned, including driving their cars into trees and other cars. Cannabis now follows only alcohol as the primary drug of abuse reported by people voluntarily entering drug treatment.

Why take the perfectly reasonable case that cannabis should not be illegal and ruin it with the silly claim that the stuff is harmless?

Comments

  1. says

    I’m curious, what exactly is your definition of “national legalization.” Rescheduling? Descheduling? Some version of the H.R. 1523 “States’ rights” bill? Federal taxation and regulation (ATF; FDA oversight)?

    I think my benchmark is removal of marijuana from the CSA, at least as applied to states with regulatory laws (i.e. H.R. 1523). I would not be surprised to see that happen in 2017-18, after the wave of initiatives in 2016. I think you’re probably right that some time after 2020 is a safer bet, but that’s a 40-60% proposition, whereas I used to consider it a 20-80% bet.

    • Dead or In Jail says

      I’m not Mark and I don’t claim to speak for him but I’d like to put in a good word for that “States’ Rights” concept to facilitate a variety of different marijuana policies. Why should we rely on the intuition of fallible human beings when we can run experiments in our glorious laboratories of democracy?

      (Yes, I recognize the potential for interstate arbitrage but I won’t dignify it by calling it a “problem.”)

  2. says

    If the question of whether to legalize now seems largely settled, that makes the much-less-debated question of how to legalize even more topical. Some of the smarter opponents of cannabis have figured this out, and are now looking for ways of limiting the increase in drug abuse likely to follow legal availability. However, career and ideological interests and group ties are likely to lead the majority of the active drug warriors to keep fighting what now seems like an unwinnable battle, telling one another that legalization is sure to be such a disaster that the public will demand re-prohibition. By doing so, the warriors will help to ensure that the legal system that eventually arises will be over-commercialized, under-regulated, and under-taxed.

    This would simply repeat the mistake they made in opposing the medical use of cannabis. While the warriors kept chanting “Cheech and Chong medicine,” the pot advocates rolled right over them. Rien appris, rien oublié.

    Well, what happened with alcohol?

    Isn’t the more plausible explanation that there’s basically only one way something gets legalized in a capitalist society, and that’s in the over-commercialized way you don’t like?

    I was thinking about this because I know you feel so strongly about it. To try to sympathize with you, I think the actual problem is that it’s just not possible to have a prescription system for recreational substances, because that only works when you are dealing with a substance that is indicated medically so that it becomes possible to have doctors control its distribution. But the prescription system is basically the way we handle substances that we put into our bodies that are useful but dangerous.

    With respect to recreational substances, whether it be tobacco, alcohol, fatty foods, caffeine, sugar, or legal recreational drugs, we can’t use doctors as gatekeepers, as people are in charge of their own recreation. And that means that the world you fear is basically inevitable. There is no gatekeeper.

    • Mark Kleiman says

      Don’t mistake lack of imagination for impossibility. Both the restriction of commerce to businesses organized on a not-for-profit basis and the restriction of retail sales to a state monopoly are feasible.

      • Nick says

        Why do you think marijuana should be dispensed on a not-for-profit basis? Why should the sale of marijuana be restricted just for the sake of restricting it? The reason why marijuana was ever criminalised in the first place was due to racism.

      • says

        Actually, I think both are un-American (not in a jingoistic way, but simply incompatible with American capitalism). Even if we started there, if there are profits to be made, we would not end up there.

        • Anonymous says

          Tell that to the un-Americans in Virginia and NH, standing with their guns outside the state liquor store.

          • says

            I actually DO think a state monopoly on marijuana sales could be workable. But that’s not what Mark is imagining. He’s imagining a system where there would be no big large-scale suppliers of marijuana and everyone would be stuck buying low-quality, unsafe weed from grow-your-own fly-by-nights and non-profits.

            I’m saying THAT can’t work in America.

            The state-owned liquor store thing is just a monopoly on the last rung of the distribution ladder, with big liquor corporations continuing to profit. Mark doesn’t want that. And that’s what I am saying is a complete Fantasyland of a position in America.

  3. James Wimberley says

    The current situation, where marijuana is illegal nationally and legal in certain states, is incoherent and unenforceable. But you could imagine the reverse: no national ban, except on interstate trade, and state options on the spectrum of legalisation and criminalisation. That would not work very well either, but it would not be ridiculous. There are still dry counties next to wet ones. The dry counties accept that their bans are of limited effectiveness, but they are not a complete waste of time. A national excise tax rate (refunded 100% to the states) would be helpful in preventing smuggling between stoner states. The fewer criminals in the business the better.

    • Mike says

      James,
      Very important point there. I think we’ll have a much better policy if federal law supports a basic framework that allows access to the interstate market with reasonable regulation for health and consumer protection, provides for a tax structure that shares revenue equitably with the states, does not unduly restrict individual rights to produce for personal consumption (per the beer model), and ensures protection of the rights of cannabis users. Speaking of which…

      Most critically, as a patient myself, I think the federal government has an important role to play in ensuring that any state level restrictions do not apply to medical access. I know the feds don’t have a good record with respect to the doctor-patient relationship, but that’s something that could and should change ASAP, perhaps with a court decision…oh, wait a minute, maybe that won’t work, but you see my point. There are some backwards locations that will likely seek to maintain state level bans and there is no justification for that under federal legalization, even presuming that allows a state opt-out, which it shouldn’t. Take your friggin’ cultural wars and leave me and my docs to work on my health, thank you. It’s basic respect for human rights.

      • MitchK says

        There’s an irony here, in that these “backwards locations” are generally ones that are terrified about “the government getting between me and my doctor”.

        • Mike says

          The right is so irony-rich, they should either be a comedy special or a diet supplement. That would be much less dangerous for the country.

  4. Brett Bellmore says

    “The question, as asked, was about legalizing use, not production and sale.”

    Of course, most people understand there’s no point in something being legal if you’re not permitted to obtain it, and don’t suffer from this ingrained hostility to commercial enterprises. So it amounts to the same thing, legalizing use, and legalizing the production and sale.

    • navarro says

      “. . .don’t suffer from this ingrained hostility to commercial enterprises.” i just think it’s funny that even when you are trying to make a reasonable point you feel compelled to bring in issues extraneous to your point. are you trying to make all of us neo-collectivist liberals bristle with anger at your puncture of our bubble? i’ve seen very little hostility to commercial enterprise from dr. kleiman except with regards to marijuana policy. he has a few blind spots when it comes to marijuana legalization but don’t we all have a few blind spots here and there?

      • says

        I think Brett is correct that Mark is hostile to a certain sort of capitalism, specifically the tobacco company.

        The thing is, I bet a grow your own system would have made tobacco cigarettes even more dangerous than they are now.

    • Mike says

      Brett, like a clock, is likely to be right about two things every day.

      Most Americans are smart enough to understand that to have legal use, you have to have legal production and sale.

      Does Mark really think the average Joe or Jane is too wasted already to not understand that?
      ;)

      But seriously, legal marijuana production is going to be regulated, so there’s little point at tilting at Randian windmills on this one.

      • Mark Kleiman says

        This is not complicated, except for people who are more interested in expressing their emotions than they are in understanding how the world operates.

        There are laws against the use of cannabis, in the form of possession laws. Getting rid of those is called “decriminalization.” There are also laws against production and sale. Getting rid of those is called “legalization.” Allowing use but not production and sale would create a strange situation, but it represents a possible policy choice. (The Dutch made another strange choice: they [more or less] legalized retail sales but not production.)

        I promise you that if the question had been asked about “marijuana sales” rather than “marijuana use” the results would have been different, because one question focuses attention on the sympathetic pot-smoker, the other on the less-sympathetic seller.

        As Brett perfectly well knows, I have no “ingrained hostility to commercial enterprises.” I have made an argument – unrefuted to date – that the commercial interests of cannabis sellers, like the commercial interests of alcohol sellers and gambling operators, will be contrary to the public interest, and that therefore commercial enterprise is not a good way to organize commerce in that category of goods and services. Trying to pretend that a reasoned conclusion is a mere prejudice is among the shabbiest of debaters’ tricks.

        • H. Beaver says

          If the public interest of cannabis retailers is that responsible users be allowed to obtain a safe product free from violence or threat of violence (government or organized crime), then that is consistent with the public interest. Alcohol and gambling operators are very good at that. I don’t fear arrest when I buy beer, or being robbed. There will be other public interests that they may not be able to meet which you feel they should, such as minimizing consumption. But just because Walmart desires to sell as many hammers as possible doesn’t mean they must assume the responsibility to ensure safe construction.

          Also, what is so special about matching a business’s interest with that of the public interest, especially if the public interest can be served despite their intent? For example,the medical cannabis retailers in Los Angeles want to sell as much weed as possible. As someone who grew up on a street with open air drug sales, I happy that the greedy cannabis retailers made my neighborhood safer by reducing the demand for such dealings. Do I care the retailers just wanted to sell the most weed possible?

          • J. Michael Neal says

            The commercial interest of cannabis retailers, just like the commercial interest of alcohol, tobacco, and gambling retailers, is to make as much profit as possible. Pretending that this amounts only to “responsible users be[ing] allowed to obtain a safe product free from violence or threat of violence” is just dumb.

            The public interest with regards to all of these also extends beyond “responsible users be[ing] allowed to obtain a safe product free from violence or threat of violence.” It includes ways of protecting us from the irresponsible users. Dilan and Brett seem to be of the opinion that there’s nothing we can do to protect these other interests when they aren’t denying that these interests exist at all. In both cases, they’re wrong.

            Now, I grant that if you take the Supreme Court that we have as being a fixed value, then trying to protect the public becomes a lot more problematic. But pretending that the Supreme Court is a fixed value of the universe and anything that runs afoul of it should be considered flat out impossible is, once again, dumb.

          • says

            Michael:

            1. I think it’s very dangerous to include the paternalistic protection of people from known risks they want to take as part of the job of the government. Risk taking is not only not something the government should really stop– it’s a social good. It’s what makes life worth living. And in practice, the government’s actions against risk taking are extremely selective and are usually directed at the poor and minorities. Nobody stops Richard Branson from shooting rich people up into space. But heaven forbid if a poor person wants to enjoy some risky recreation.

            Further, and connected with that, I think there is an unstated premise in these regulations that poor minorities are too stupid to know what they are doing, whereas rich skydivers and the like are not. Simply put, that’s racist and classist. I think we should treat the preferences of poor people, including for risky activity, with respect. Inform them of the risks, sure, but stop pretending that the “public interest” includes ensuring that poor people don’t get to take any risks or have any fun.

            2. My point about commercial sale is only partly about the Supreme Court. It is true that the Supreme Court has correctly interpreted the First Amendment to protect non-misleading advertising of legal products, and this doctrine isn’t going anywhere. But it’s also that I think that the commercial marketplace and capitalism is built into the American system. We simply don’t impose the sorts of restrictions proposed on marijuana on ANY other product. And I think there are excellent reasons for this– in fact, big corporations give us safer, more consistent products and more consumer choice than small sellers do. This is the same argument some folks have over Wal-Mart– I find it much superior to overrated, expensive mom and pop stores with poor selection. I feel no guilt about putting those stores out of business and shopping at Wal-Mart. Some people are aghast at that. But big corporations and the profit motive tend to be good for consumers, as long as you have decent anti-trust and anti-fraud laws and safety regulations.

        • Mike says

          Mark,
          Thanks, I certainly don’t see any antipathy toward commercial enterprises, just due caution about how we know profit can distort good things into bad things.

          I think it’s clear that the unregulated market that Brett fantasizes about is pretty unlikely. In fact, my skepticism about the idea that possession/use won’t be somehow joined at the hip with production/sales is based on the fact that I just don’t see one without the other — and leaving the latter illegal is a recipe for pretty much all the bad things I can think of happening, a Wild West of Reefer that benefits no one except the criminal element. Of course, that’s pretty close to what we’ve had for decades in my eye, thus my concern that we might see unwanted continuity, instead of thoughtful – and real – reform.

        • says

          By the way, what’s the case against commercial gambling? Do you want to outlaw investment brokerages? Because that is what they sell to consumers. And you know what grow your own commercial gambling is? Mafia bookies and the numbers racket.

          People LIKE taking risks. You have to stop thinking the job of the government is to stop sin.

          • NYPaul says

            Good point; “People LIKE taking risks.” And, for whatever reason, the government has taken a somewhat more progressive position in the evolution of gambling than it has for cannabis. But, the thing that I don’t understand, and, don’t like, is the government’s role as the proprietor of one huge form of gambling, namely, lotteries.

            When most forms of gambling were illegal in virtually all the states (Nevada being the exception) it was somewhat understandable that the states controlled their lotteries. But, during the last few decades, as the other forms of gambling have proliferated throughout America, why should the states continue to be the operators of lotteries?

            First, there’s the moral aspect to it. I just feel there’s something unseemly for your government being the purveyor, or promoter, of a game that, by design, guarantees that 99+% will lose money. And, the fact that a large majority of the lottery “players” come from the lower socio-economic strata of our populace only further demeans this process. Just the thought of some government employee, sitting in his little cubicle, dreaming up such rabbinical rip offs like, “You gotta be in it to win it,” makes my skin crawl.

            I don’t want to outlaw lotteries; I just want my government to get out of this business, and let private interests run them (and, be taxed appropriately.)

            Am I wrong in my thinking?

          • says

            I think the state monopoly on lotteries is a result of 2 things:

            1. Private lotteries were a lot more corrupt than other forms of illegal gambling. It’s just easier to fix a lottery than it is to fix a sports event. So private lotteries have been illegal for a long time, whereas legal forms of other gambling evolved.

            2. When states needed money, lotteries were the easiest form of gambling to quickly legalize. So we created a newfangled tradition of state lotteries.

            At any rate, in a perfect world, yeah, we’d have private lotteries with lower takeout. I don’t know how we get there from here, though.

        • Paul says

          I think that some commenters here suspect that the political economy of trying to prevent legal marijuana from eventually becoming like the political economy of alcohol, tobacco, and gambling is not tenable in the long run. That is, surely it is possible to imagine a world in which commercial interests don’t dominate the production and sale of marijuana, but it just does not seem a likely outcome. The reason it doesn’t seem likely is that there will be people who personally profit from the sale of marijuana. These people will lobby to deregulate in ways that boost their personal profits. The heads of nominally not-for-profits could just want higher salaries, in the same way that university administrators aren’t shareholders and yet somehow seem to capture large amounts of the residual value produced by public universities. And of course, sooner or later libertarians/conservatives will see the regulation of marijuana as an attack on free markets, and they will push that line. Don’t forget users of cannabis, who will want it to be cheap, potent, and easily available. There will be enormous pressure to deregulate from many different groups of people. It is unrealistic in the long run to think that the people of the US have the political will to withstand concerted efforts to deregulate cannabis.

    • SamChevre says

      There are substantial numbers of things (wild game, homebrew beer, home-cooked food, over-quota tobacco) where production and use are legal, and giving them away is legal, but sale is not legal. I’d expect there’s some amount of small sales in any such system, but most of the production is non-commercial.

      This state of the world seems to be a real possibility.

      • Brett Bellmore says

        Saskatoons. Coors. Restaurants. NOT over-quota tobacco. It’s kind of tendentious pointing out personal production not for profit of products which are for sale commercially as proof that making them legal only where not for profit is feasible.

  5. Bruce says

    I occasionally end up on my gym’s hamster-wheel cycles next to my county’s assistant district attorney on Saturday mornings. He fully expects marijuana to be legal soon — in California, at least — and struggles with how to fairly and effectively prosecute cases that the voters are likely to soon decide shouldn’t even be crimes.

    • Mike says

      Bruce,
      Sounds like a conscientious fellow, which is not necessarily a requirement in that profession in my experience. His less conscientious colleagues are simply worrying defendants may suddenly start to demand jury trials instead of pleading — and then walking free and clear when they are acquitted by citizens more conscientious about injustice than they are.

      We are very close to that point right now. There has been a trickle of cases in the last couple of years indicating this may soon turn into a flood of unprosecutable cases. News like this poll, plus one or two high-profile acquittals and the Potemkin Village of Pot Prosecutions will crumble quickly.

        • Mike says

          Give it time…

          BTW, I happen to be doing my jury duty this week. Conscientiously.

          Last time it was two DUI cases, but I’m ready for my first weed case…

  6. says

    “2. With a sample size of only 1000, some of the movement might be noise rather than signal. The Galston-Dionne analysis of Pew Center data from earlier in the year shows a more closely divided country; again, it’s an open question whether that difference is measurement error or real change over a few months.”

    Actually, a sample size of 1000 should be fine – once the population is sufficiently large, then increasing sample size only brings incremental benefits to compromise. The real benefits come from more samples (ie, more polls), rather than larger samples. The magic of the Central Limit Theorem at work.

    Likely the Gallup poll is either an outlier, using a somewhat different methodology, or both. Nevertheless, even if we consider it the upper bound on the population parameter, it certainly implies an impressive degree of support.

    • Mike says

      So long as the basic methodology is correct — and there’s little reason to worry over that with Gallup — the poll clearly affirms a documented trend. I see little reason on that score to see much doubt about these numbers. Sure, the acceleration is pretty strong, but that’s really not unusual as this stage in social movements. I’ll leave the rest of the stats to someone other than my barely qualified STAT 101 self.

      As Mark noted, the perception of being on the winning side is often enough to change minds. But if one looks at other issues fought over individual and collective liberties and rights in the US, long struggles — like abolition, women’s suffrage, the labor movement, the African-American civil rights movement, GLBT rights — were followed by relatively quick legal transitions. We’re obviously still dealing with the social and cultural baggage of all of the above, too, a reminder that it’s best to accomplish as clean and comprehensive break with the past as possible while everyone’s attention is focused. Otherwise, we’ll be stuck with situation like unions or women face. Got the vote in ’20, but they are still fighting to this day for the right to equal pay — or even the right to effectively sue for it. There’s been far too much of that sort of thing in our past. We need to do better this time around.

      • Brett Bellmore says

        The acceleration is to be expected in this context, where preference falsification applies. We’re only now getting past the point where expressing a desire for drug legalization creates the presumption that you use drugs, a presumption which can have adverse legal consequences, like, oh, heavily armed men breaking in your door in the middle of the night.

        The safer people feel expressing this opinion, the more people will express it, and the safer other people will feel. In such circumstances, public opinion can “flip” essentially overnight. This is why authoritarian regimes invest so much effort to censor public expressions of disagreement with the regime. To prevent preference cascades.

        Looks like we could be in the middle of one.

          • Arch Stanton says

            Don’t discount the Sanjay Gupta effect, which is a part of that whole acceleration from the elimination of preference falsification. When the most well known doctor in America comes out in favor of medical marijuana and states that he sees no medical justification prohibition of recreational use, it is an indication that he feels comfortable putting his celebrity profile on the line to state an opinion that he may or may not have had all along. Let’s take at face value his claim that only after recently reviewing the research and literature on the subject that he changed his mind…of which I have my doubts. Now imagine him (or whoever else you want to consider “America’s Doctor” at time doing this 15 years ago. He would have lost his job at CNN and been vilified as some sort of hippie cook.

            I honestly think that huge jump you are seeing in the polls is a direct result of Sanjay Gupta. His coming out generated a lot of buzz and was an important signal to middle America that ending prohibition is ok.

          • Mike says

            Arch,
            I was thinking the very same thing last night. Gupta came to the party late, but his entourage was large. I doubt that was all the difference. Brett’s take on things is pretty much the short-term expression of those long-term trends I cited.

            I guess I wouldn’t go so far in attributing the repression side of things being responsible for silencing Americans on reefer. I know there’s some element of that, because I use due caution myself. Americans simply don’t stand up for themselves enough. Too many worry about whether some fat cat is gonna get his tax cut and not nearly enough of us demand the government be run for the benefit of us all.

      • Dennis says

        Actually, there is reason to worry over that with Gallup. Gallup has missed the last couple of elections pretty badly — not the call, but the margins. Unless they have revamped since 2012 and made a peace with cell-phone-only people, their sampling methods don’t cover cell phones.

        They also have some weighting problems in their analyses.

        Gallup hasn’t had a Literary Digest moment (yet), but they were not state-of-the-art two years ago.

        For this particular issue, the bias is likely to understate support for legalization.

        • Mike says

          I agree that’s a potential error in Gallup methodology, but there’s a certain value in consistency. Knowing Gallup polling trends somewhat less connected as a demographic by dealing only with landlines, we can make beter year to year comparisons to past data.

          I’m not too worried about Gallup undercounting support for legalization, though. Others are polling on the same thing, so plenty of data. If anything, Gallup coming up with a number like 58%, if it were followed by XYZ Polling with legalization support pegged at 67% in the near future, would really hammer home the shift in public opinion. XYZ may not be Gallup, but if their methodology is sound, that’s OK.

  7. BM says

    I feel that there hasn’t been enough attention to the “legal to grow, legal to give away, illegal to sell” option. It seems to be the best of all possible worlds, eh? It kills off the pot-marketing industry. It makes small amounts of pot available to anyone. Without adding a lot of regulatory apparatus, it winds up putting additional burdens on heavy users (who need more than a windowsill’s worth) and minors (it’s harder to hide a pot gardening/cutting/drying operation in your bedroom than it is to hide a stash). A bit haphazardly, it makes pot less available to urbanites, including the urban poor (who are less likely to have garden access and generous suburban friends) without burdening them with regressive excise taxes. It would presumably satisfy a lot of the pro-legalization voters, many of whom are middle-class householders for whom a backyard pot patch is no burden at all, and take the issue off the table (and the wind out of the pro-commercialization lobby’s sails.)

    • Brett Bellmore says

      So, basically, you want Prohibition. You’ve just described the legal status of wine in most places during Prohibition: You could drink it, you could make it at home in quantities appropriate to home use, you could give it to friends as a gift. You just couldn’t buy and sell it.

      It should go without saying, but I guess I have to say it: This is a level of restriction comprehensively proven to be sufficient to maintain a violent and corrupting black market. Which is to say, sufficient to destroy much of the benefit of legalization.

      Mark wants just enough legalization to ‘prove’ that legalization doesn’t “work”, but not enough to risk it working. Either that’s why he wants his halfway version, or he’s just averse to the normal operations of markets. I think the latter, actually.

      • SamChevre says

        This is a level of restriction comprehensively proven to be sufficient to maintain a violent and corrupting black market.

        I’m actually not certain that this is true; wasn’t almost all the violent and corrupting portion of the Prohibition-era alcohol market in distilled spirits (which were NOT legal to produce for personal use?)

    • Mike says

      BM,
      I have no problem with your formulation in terms of what we should be free to do with personal production.

      That said, it simply isn’t a strategy up to supplying the needs of millions of green-thumb-challenged Americans. Home grown plays an important role in any regulation scheme, because it provides a safety valve for those who for whatever reason don’t want to buy commercial weed, even if high quality — or who simply can’t afford to. For those not up to that, paying your taxes for the convenience of commercial weed is a reasonable thing, as they know they always have the option to DIY.

      I taught dozens of people how to grow over the years and less than a handful ever pursued it on a regular basis. Admittedly, this is under conditions of repression. That causes many green thumbs to wilt. But the fact of the matter is that millions simply don’t have a place suitable for growing. And millions more will simply say, “Nope, I’m buying mine at the store.”

      If you put such a plan in place without a commercial alternative, then you leave it to the cartels to keep filling that massive hole.

      Of course, commercialization doesn’t have to be for-profit institutions. Co-ops and grower collectives, as well as non-profits, could all supply for distribution. Note that I don’t have anything against the participation of qualified and regulated commercial interests, I just think they need to be on a level playing field with everyone else for a change.

  8. Dead or In Jail says

    Why take the perfectly reasonable case that cannabis should not be illegal and ruin it with the silly claim that the stuff is harmless?

    This is pedantry. Unless something is completely impotent (e.g., homeopathy, prayer, 3rd-Party activism), nothing in this world is harmless. People occasionally kill themselves by inadvertently drinking too much water.

    Everyone knows you can smoke too much cannabis. Or consume it in an otherwise irresponsible manner.

    The most effective argument for this is to go the pro-MJ legalization websites and see the comments made by fried-out morons who do exquisite violence to grammar, spelling, syntax, diction, really just every part of English that they can get their hands on.

    Correction: Maybe mother’s-milk is harmless? But I’ve also heard it’s a “gateway drug,” you know.

    They make a better case against dope than David Frum, Kevin Sabet, Mittens Romney, Calvina Fey or any other marcher in the Puritan Parade could ever hope to construct contra cannabis.

  9. RickG says

    Living in an area where the 20 percent of heavy drinkers seems over-represented, I do have sympathy for the concerns about commercialization. Of course there are more than a few gardens growing pot and the oxy, percoset users are well represented as well.

    It does seem maybe a good way to go is to start with the legalize limited “grow your own” and let it as well as medical MJ run the course for awhile. Of course, it may be that such an approach would disappoint those looking for tax revenues, but perhaps that is the necessary tradeoff to avoid the problems of commercialization. If one needs to grow his own, maybe he can’t be a complete stoner 24×7.

  10. says

    By the way, if we are going to define dropping out of school as a harm, then everything is hazardous.Cars, sex, teenage jobs, surfing, etc.

    Mark is trying too hard to stop sin. Marijuana is safe- it does not cause any UNIQUE harms, like lung cancer or cirrhosis. It’s not the government’s business to try and prevent access to anything that might cause a kid to drop out of school.

    • says

      Agreed. Marijuana may not be harmless but it’s closer to zero harm than it is to alcohol. And it doesn’t impair judgment in the way that Mark Kleiman implies.

      In most of the world anyone 18 or over, citizen or alien, can just walk right into a liquor store and buy enough alcohol to get behind the wheel highly impaired while thinking it’s a good and safe idea and ALSO easily die of an overdose. The worst-case scenario for marijuana is not on the same scale. It’s absurd to prefer a situation in which ordinary people find it more convenient to buy the stuff from some shady street dealer. If regulation is inevitable then fine but garment rending is simply not called for.

  11. One mom's opinion says

    But goddammit, “less harmful than alcohol” and “not harmful to most of its users” do not add up to “harmless.” Adolescents spin out on cannabis and wreck their academic careers. People of all ages do stupid things while stoned, including driving their cars into trees and other cars. Cannabis now follows only alcohol as the primary drug of abuse reported by people voluntarily entering drug treatment.

    Why take the perfectly reasonable case that cannabis should not be illegal and ruin it with the silly claim that the stuff is harmless?

    There is also a reasonable case that cannabis SHOULD be illegal as it IS harmful. Myths of the legalization movement are that it is not addictive, doesn’t cause accidents, doesn’t impact academic performance, doesn’t affect the lungs, and that legalization will not increase use in children and underage–oh and that tax revenue will save the economy.

    I will bet that Hillary Clinton when president will not support marijuana legalization any more than Obama supports it. (BTW I am a Ph.D. UCLA grad who is progressive, a community college instructor and opposed to pot from secondhand pot smoking experience). One might guess that Prop 19 in CA would pass, but it did not even though the NO side was massively outspent. 200 cities in CA prohibit dispensaries. The NIMBY effect may take over, as shown in Denver with the fight against smoking in public. Pot smokers will be saddled with the same regulations as smokers. A new parent movement may arise. Research may continue to show more harms to mental and physical health. In CA marijuana is virtually legal, so no reason to legalize. In fact, the med mar industry may see legalization as a threat and oppose it. Many states are not there yet. Even CA legislature recently voted down pro pot measures.

    Secondhand (pot) smoking: There is a great amount of harm caused to third parties by pot smoking, and it is not just secondhand smoke. Pot addiction, like alcohol addiction, destroys families. Heavy users can be very dysfunctional. Who is going to support them when they can’t or won’t finish college, work, when they become depressed or psychotic, get bronchitis, use other drugs and so forth? I have a 22 year old pothead slacker zombie on my couch and I and my family am suffering the consequences. 4 1/2years = 2 years of college and recent drop out again after two weeks. 6 attempts at treatment. Probation in two counties. A hole it will take years to dig out of. No employment history other than selling pot and making hash and a few temporary low skill jobs. Then, graduation to other drugs. Poly substance abuse. But still always weed, weed, weed, all justified by the legalizers. I’ve seen many blogs with parents complaining about the same “failure to launch” syndrome associated with marijuana addiction. Ask psychologists specializing in addictions.

    Women are now being admitted to colleges such as the UC system at higher rates than men. Coincidentally young males use marijuana at a much higher rate than females. Have there been any studies to examine the implications of high rates of marijuana use among males and lower rates of college admission and completion? Recent study from Maryland shows marijuana as a definite factor in lack of college completion.

    Legalizing will not change the fact that parents don’t want stoned children, schools and colleges don’t want stoned students , employers don’t want stoned workers, we don’t need stoned drivers, or pilots, we don’t need stoned politicians, we don’t need stoned doctors.

    This is not about alcohol or tobacco, this is about marijuana on its own merits. We don’t need a culture of weed in our country and that is what legalization will establish. A culture of weed is a culture of mediocrity.

    This blog is supposed to be about reality, but it seems to me it is more about denial. Maybe it is because the commenters are mostly men who haven’t had to deal with secondhand (pot) smoking.

    inShare.

    • says

      I think the term “harmless” is a bit vague here.

      I think of pot as harmless because it really doesn’t cause any unique harms other than the generic sorts of harms that can be caused by any recreational activity. It doesn’t cause more car accidents than cell phones, doesn’t cause more school drop-outs than ill-advised teenage sex, doesn’t break up more families or cloud thinking more than alcohol, etc. It’s basically a set of background risks. And my general attitude is that our policymakers should become more respectful of people’s right to take risks. We don’t ban bunjee jumping or skydiving. We don’t try to regulate unsafe sex. We don’t stop ordinary consumers from playing the stock market even though they just gave the nobel prize to some guys who proved that it is absolutely impossible for that to be a good gamble.

      People enjoy risks. Taking risks is part of what makes life worth living. We ought to embrace risk as a society. We should basically consider it illegitimate for the government to try and stop people from taking known, well understood risks for the sake of recreation.

      So if we are going to regulate marijuana, it has to be “harmful” not simply in the way that other things that people might do recreationally are harmful, but in some more specific and severe way. For instance, tobacco causing lung cancer, or alcohol causing all sorts of social harms. And marijuana is not harmful, at all, including to juveniles, in THAT way. It’s just not.

      If you don’t like the term “harmless”, that’s fine. But that’s the argument.

    • Rob in CT says

      I have a 22 year old pothead slacker zombie on my couch and I and my family am suffering the consequences.

      I’m sorry about that, really. Of course, this happened while it was illegal…

      Legalizing will not change the fact that parents don’t want stoned children, schools and colleges don’t want stoned students , employers don’t want stoned workers, we don’t need stoned drivers, or pilots, we don’t need stoned politicians, we don’t need stoned doctors.

      And parents don’t want alcoholic children either. Or children who are self-destructive in any manner. And we’ll do our best to raise our kids to not be those things.

      A doctor who is drunk or stone on the job = bad. A doctor who has some fun on the weekend? Not a problem. The person who drinks reasonable amounts at the right times – not a problem. The person who is always drinking, who gets behind the wheel drunk? Major problem.

      There is some portion of the population prone to over-doing things, whether it’s booze, pot, or other intoxicants. I’ve known some of them, and frankly the specific intoxicant doesn’t really matter. They’ll find something. I strongly suspect this is true of your 22-yr old pothead slacker. It was true of one of my best friends in highschool. He was always looking for something. Sometimes it was pot. Sometimes it was something else.

      Also, your slackers problems are partly due to prohibition. The situation certainly wouldn’t be all roses if pot was legal, but he wouldn’t have the probation (unless that was due to things he did *other* than growing/smoking it).

      The rest of us can typically handle things, though policy nudges (taxes on booze, strict laws against DUI, etc) to minimize harm are smart, and should be utilized with pot as with alcohol.

      …all justified by the legalizers Yeah, no. No more true than saying alcoholics should be blamed on those who want alcohol to be legal. We all know alcohol is dangerous. We also know, from history, that banning it does more harm than good. Not banning it doesn’t mean no harm. It means less. But still substantial harm!

      Your personal experience is… just that. It’s not the personal experience of millions of others. I can understand your feelings on the matter. I still think you’re wrong.

    • Mike says

      Well, it’s rather obvious that the prohibition thing didn’t work out too well, either.

      It’s decades too late to declare a war on the culture of weed. I really can’t see blaming all your son’s problem on weed or college drop-out rates on it, either.

      Weed does make a convenient whipping boy for bad parenting though. Not that I’m suggesting that’s the case here. But I’ve seen that happen again and again myself. Some parents are absolutely insufferable towards their kids. Kids get old enough to rebel for the first time. That’s no farther than the nearest baggie of weed. Mission accomplished. It’ll drive mom nuts.

      If weed has to stand on its own merits, than so do alcohol and tobacco. No one can objectively demonstrate worse outcomes from cannabis than from the other two, which are clearly documented as problematic. How any educated person can fail to make that distinction is beyond me. And the failure of the “war on pot” means there’s little point in pouring more money down that rathole.

    • Dead or In Jail says

      Sorry about your son. Really.

      But your argument about marijuana being harmful, per se is still ludicrous.

      He used (uses?) marijuana irresponsibly and it has given him trouble. That’s too bad.

      Barry Obama used to smoke a lot of pot in his teens. He even invented new ways of getting high (“roof hits,” “total absorption,” etc). But now he’s president. So it could go either way.

      G.W. Bush used to get drunk a lot as a teen. Then in his twenties. Through his 30s. Then he became Governor of Texas, an oil business owner, the chief of the Texas Rangers Major League Baseball club, and El Presidente of our United States of America. After retiring from this last position, he has become a world-renowned painter and a grandfather.

      Anyway, don’t give up on your son. The sky’s the limit for him!

      Back to the lecture at hand.

      Are automobiles harmful or harmless? Every year, 35,000 Americans (or 11 * 9/11 victims) die on our nation’s roads. Ergo, harmful!

      But cars also help take us to church, to the animal shelter, to our PTA meetings, to little league, to Wednesday bowling, to the bordello, to the abattoir, visitations with our mistress, to see the Grand Canyon, to our Code Pink organizing meeting, to the Barry Obama lingerie signing.

      So, um, it’s complicated. Remember, cannabis is a gift from Sky-Daddy. In ~15 years, daily hash smoking will be mandated by law and only fringe libertarian radicals of the variety despised by Mark A.R. Kleiman will protest about freedom of choice for the abstemious citizens of America. Enjoy your smoke-free years while you have them.

  12. Ralph says

    One Mom’s Opinion: A culture of weed is a culture of mediocrity.

    And what is a culture of alcohol?
    I’ve been the Netherlands many times. I don’t think they have a culture of mediocrity.
    Sorry your kid is a slacker. He could be a drunk as easily as a pothead.

  13. Paul says

    I think Mark’s concern is that the repeal of marijuana prohibition will be done much like the repeal of alcohol prohibition, with maximum freedom for commercial exploitation and less priority for protecting public health by careful regulation. As Mark has previously stated, Americans have black or white thinking when it comes to recreational drugs. A drug is either illegal and bad or legal and no problem. If that attitude is applied to marijuana legalization, then society will suffer more harm that might otherwise be better curbed.

    • says

      There are 3 problems here:

      1. He way overstates the danger of a free marijuana market.

      2. He way understates the barriers, legal and societal, to basically banning capitalism with respect to one legal substance.

      3. He way understates, or does not consider at all, the fact that free markets are a form of human freedom and people ought to be able to make choices he thinks to be bad.

      • Dead or In Jail says

        1. He way overstates the danger of a free marijuana market.

        We have no relevant experience with such a thing. The last time this stuff was legal like milk, there was no such thing as broadcast media. I strongly suspect Mark’s off-base but this one has to be a draw: all we can do is make analogies and speculate.

        2. He way understates the barriers, legal and societal, to basically banning capitalism with respect to one legal substance.

        We don’t live under “capitalism,” we live in a mixed economy. There are marketplaces, commerce, and contracts. There is also a large bureaucracy, extensive regulation, and taxes, taxes, taxes. Mark thinks that vigorous enforcement of sensible rules devised by experts with years of study is the way to structure the market for the best outcomes. Skeptics like me thinks that Mark has too much faith in policymakers and the policy process and to little faith in the self-regulation of complex systems (e.g., mass behavior of the majority of the population).

        3. He way understates, or does not consider at all, the fact that free markets are a form of human freedom and people ought to be able to make choices he thinks to be bad.

        I am in complete agreement with critique #3. I wish he would address it directly.

        • says

          We have no relevant experience with such a thing. The last time this stuff was legal like milk, there was no such thing as broadcast media. I strongly suspect Mark’s off-base but this one has to be a draw: all we can do is make analogies and speculate.

          It’s legal in a few other places around the world, and its effectively legal in some of the more liberal medical marijuana jurisdictions. Marijuana use is way up here in California? Any social harms? Zero, that I can detect.

          We don’t live under “capitalism,” we live in a mixed economy. There are marketplaces, commerce, and contracts. There is also a large bureaucracy, extensive regulation, and taxes, taxes, taxes. Mark thinks that vigorous enforcement of sensible rules devised by experts with years of study is the way to structure the market for the best outcomes. Skeptics like me thinks that Mark has too much faith in policymakers and the policy process and to little faith in the self-regulation of complex systems (e.g., mass behavior of the majority of the population).

          Mark believes two things that are completely wrong about the viability of his grow-your-own, fly-by-night non-profit, low quality, unsafe pot equlibrium. First, he doesn’t understand that the commercial speech doctrine is a given, is not going anywhere, and is right. He basically is just like the right wingers who think there’s a “real” Constitution that enacts his policy preferences and that the Supreme Court is too stupid to know about. There are close to zero constitutional law experts, on the Court or off, who think that the First Amendment does not protect truthful, non-misleading commercial speech. And that means that anyone who lawfully sells marijuana is going to be able to advertise and grow their business.

          Second, he doesn’t understand that, whatever you want to say about mixed economies, there is no example of a product that is legal but that which large corporations cannot produce, market, and sell. It just isn’t the way America works. If there’s money in it, potential sellers will lobby for the right to sell it. And therefore, he’s never going to maintain his unsafe, grow-your-own, fly-by-night, non-profit utopia.

          • Dead or In Jail says

            There are close to zero constitutional law experts, on the Court or off, who think that the First Amendment does not protect truthful, non-misleading commercial speech. And that means that anyone who lawfully sells marijuana is going to be able to advertise and grow their business.

            In 1986, the Supreme Court upheld laws proscribing same-sex sodomy in Bowers v. Hardwick. In 2003, the Court reversed itself in Lawrence v. Texas. Hell, Roe v. Wade was almost overturned. These things happen. I’m giving this point to Mark.

            Second, he doesn’t understand that, whatever you want to say about mixed economies, there is no example of a product that is legal but that which large corporations cannot produce, market, and sell. It just isn’t the way America works. If there’s money in it, potential sellers will lobby for the right to sell it. And therefore, he’s never going to maintain his unsafe, grow-your-own, fly-by-night, non-profit utopia.

            When I was a youngster, there were cigarette ads on billboards. There were also tobacco ads in magazines.

            Now there aren’t.

            America is not the capitalist wonderland you are describing. If anything, the inherently unpredictable quasi-democratic aspect of our political system plays a larger role.

          • says

            Tobacco ads were banned with the consent of the tobacco companies to avoid paying tort damages. Without their consent, the add ban would have been struck down.

            And non lawyers who don’t know how the law works need to stop lecturing me on precedent. Bowers was tenuous from the time it was decided. There have been at least 10 commercial speech cases EXPANDING Virginia Board of Pharmacy. Everyone in the legal community agrees with it. It’s not going anywhere, and if you don’t believe me, talk to some other people who know what they are talking about.

          • Brett Bellmore says

            “Tobacco ads were banned with the consent of the tobacco companies to avoid paying tort damages.”

            Which tort damages weren’t a serious concern until laws were enacted which had been designed by the tort bar specifically for the purpose of barring the tobacco companies from using any of the defenses which had previously won their cases for them. Not a good day for the legal system, even if you despise the tobacco companies.

  14. says

    The movement in the polling has moved me. I’ve long been aware the laws against weed mostly led to delegitimizaton of the “justice” system. If most folks are ready for pot to be legal, all to the good.

    But I never really CARED when legalization seemed a long shot. Nearly every other issue seemed more important. But if this one’s time has come, excellent and I move to the strong supporter category.

  15. Inga says

    I (almost) always agree with what you write, Mark, but can you please stop calling people concerned about preventing adolescent substance abuse “drug warriors”? If you want to bring people around to the idea that fighting marijuana legalization is an “unwinnable battle” and that their actions may lead to an over-commercialized system, you need to stop lumping them into one group and calling them a name that will cause them to disengage. I am tired of people on all sides of this issue calling each other names. It’s unproductive.

  16. Freeman says

    But goddammit, “less harmful than alcohol” and “not harmful to most of its users” do not add up to “harmless.”

    Chris still has the funniest comeback to this line.

    Adolescents spin out on cannabis and wreck their academic careers.

    Losers gonna find a way to lose. If not cannabis, then something else. There are plenty of counter-examples (Michael Phelps, anyone? How about Barack Obama?). The digression from reality here is blaming the drug for the actions of the adolescents, who are notorious for doing all sorts of ill-advised things that might not be good for them, with or without drugs.

    People of all ages do stupid things while stoned, including driving their cars into trees and other cars.

    People of all ages do stupid things while using cell phones, including driving their cars into trees and other cars. The pertinent question is how do the numbers compare to the risks? This reeks of false equivalency with alcohol impairment.

    Cannabis now follows only alcohol as the primary drug of abuse reported by people voluntarily entering drug treatment.

    Given the nearly 700,000 annual marijuana arrests, the rising popularity of pretrial diversion programs, and the knowledge that any competent attorney is going to recommend “voluntarily entering drug treatment” before going to trial or negotiating a plea arrangement, I don’t think this means what you imply it means. The diversion from reality here the implication that those voluntarily entering drug treatment for marijuana are all doing so because they no longer want to consume it and experience enough difficulty quitting without a structured treatment program that they seek it’s benefits, when it’s prevalence is rising right alongside that of law enforcement practices that favor those who do.

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