Since I don’t vote in Arizona (though, as it happens, I was born there) I hadn’t studied the details of the cannabis-legalization proposition which will appear on the ballot there this fall. So when the Sandra Day O’Connor Institute invited me to join a panel discussion, I came in thinking only what I generally think about such measures:
- Cannabis ought to be legal. Prohibition has broken down to the point where the harms associated with trying to control an illegal market generating $40 billion a year in criminal revenues greatly exceed the benefits, and there’s no plausible route back to effective prohibition.
- We ought to legalize in a way that makes moderate use by adults easy, while discouraging the formation of bad cannabis habits (an increasingly common problem) and use by minors.
- Alcohol-style legalization, which is what the ballot propositions generally offer, is a bad way to do that, because a for-profit industry (like the existing illicit industry) will make most of its money selling to heavy daily users rather than casual users, and about half the daily users – by their own self-report – have lost control of their cannabis habits.
- There are lots of other, better options.
- Even within a for-profit model, there are plenty of ways to encourage temperance, starting with keeping prices high, restricting persuasive marketing, and requiring that sales clerks have training in pharmacology and the prevention of substance use disorders and a professional responsibility to give advice in the interest of their customers, not their employers.
- It would therefore be better to handle this through the usual legislative process rather than by initiative.
- To make that workable, Congress should act to allow states to legalize (waiving the federal criminal laws that would otherwise apply) if their plans to do so meet rather strict criteria, as determined by the Secretary of HHS and the Attorney General. Those waivers should have to be renewed periodically, in order to hold the states and the industry to the promises made in order to get them.
- But since the state and federal legislative processes clearly won’t do what a majority of the voters clearly want them to do, I’d vote for any halfway-reasonable legalization initiative, both to end the arrests sooner rather than later and to nudge the legislators along.
So, going in to the discussion, I was prepared to advise Arizona voters to hold their noses and vote “yes.” That’s the same advice I’d give voters in California.
But clearly there are some propositions that are so bad, and so hard to fix, that the voters ought to reason the other way: vote “no” to encourage the advocates to come up with something less awful. My conclusion, after participating in the discussion, is that Measure 205 is bad enough to warrant that treatment.
What changed my mind?