Chronicle Review Essay: Marijuana Policy Past And Future
It has been fewer than 20 years since California voters ushered in the modern era of marijuana policy by approving a loosely-written initiative to allow for the use of medical marijuana. Since then, medical marijuana laws have spread to almost half the states (and that’s not including those CBD-only bills in vogue this year), nearly as many states have decriminalized small-time pot possession, and two have taken the plunge into full (more or less) legalization.
I’m optimistic that the pace of change is only going to accelerate. I can foresee Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia legalizing it at the ballot box this year; with California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Montana all good candidates for doing the same in 2016. And if advocates in big Midwest states like Ohio and Michigan can ever manage to get a legalization initiative on the ballot there, we could pick up critical states in the Heartland.
It’ll be a tougher slog in the states, mainly in the East, that don’t have the initiative process. I would be surprised to see any of them legalize it until after 2016, in part because the legislative process is typically so slow, but also in part because after 2016, legislators will begin to understand that they’re about to miss the marijuana revenues boat. While legalization bills are already popping up around the country, I’m not holding my breath, but I expect one or more of the New England states to legalize it at the statehouse in the months following the 2016 election, and then the race will really be on.
I have to thank Firedog Lake’s Jon Walker for helping to clarify my thoughts on this. With After Legalization, he posits what the near future of pot policy is going to look like, and he presents a convincing scenario similar to that which I have just advanced. Walker uses the rhetorical conceit of looking back from the year 2030 and argues that by that point, federal marijuana prohibition will be history (having ended sometimes in the 2020s) and 43 of the 50 states will have legalized it. (Two more, Idaho and Wyoming, in Walker’s scenario, will have chosen to allow people to grow and consume their own, but won’t allow marijuana sales.)
But After Legalization is much more than mere wishful prognosticating. It is an in-depth, thoughtful, and insightful look at how our approach to legal marijuana will evolve, what the issues are likely to be, where the battle lines are likely to be drawn, and who the players will be (you might be surprised). Walker provides concrete hypothetical examples of different approaches to legalization (available at state stores only, available from private stores, available from gourmet boutique stores), different product lines, and differing tax and regulation schemes, as well as delving into the minutiae of state and local regulation.
One thing that struck me was Walker’s assertion that the wholesale cost of high quality marijuana under general legalization would be about $37 an ounce, and that good pot would probably sell for something like $75 an ounce retail—more at those fancy boutiques. That’s way cheaper than what we’re currently seeing in Colorado, where legal pot is fetching near black market prices, but I suppose that black market premium will go down in the face of broader legalization.
Relatedly, Walker also argues that the federal government can effectively set retail marijuana prices. It can do so by imposing a two-tiered excise tax that only kicks in if individual states have not passed their own excise tax. California could choose to impose no excise tax on pot, but it would gain no competitive advantage in pricing because then the federal excise tax would come into play. Such a system would, however, discourage states from setting excessive excise taxes because they could be undercut by neighbors.
After Legalization is an exercise in serious marijuana wonkery—and I mean that in a good way. After legalization, the struggle won’t be one of freedom and liberation, but of legislative committees, zoning boards, and product packaging disputes. Multiple interests will be at play, and pot smokers will only be one of them. Walker’s work unpacks these intricacies, lays out the possibilities, and still manages to be entertaining. It should be required reading for policy-makers, legislators, and staffers beginning to grapple with these issues, but it’s a comprehensive and provocative read for anyone with a serious interest in the future of pot policy.
If Walker attempts to answer the question “Where do we go from here?” Alyson Martin and Nushin Rashidian attempt to tell us how we got here in the first place with A New Leaf. With the pair of investigative journalists, we’re off on a journey into the recent history of marijuana law reform. Regular readers of the Drug War Chronicle will know the stories the pair tell and the people they talk to—this is exactly what I’ve been covering for the past 13 years—but Martin and Rashidian manage to turn the whirlwind of events into a seamless, comprehensive narrative that explains the rise of the marijuana movement, culminating with the election day victories in Colorado and Washington in 2012.
They interview patients, growers, researchers, businesspeople, legislators, activists, and more as they tease the tale of marijuana reform from those first federally approved patients in the 1970s and 1980s through the AIDS crisis and the rise of medical marijuana in California, and beyond. Anyone wanting to join the conversation about the rapidly changing landscape of marijuana reform would be well-served to have A New Leaf on his bookshelf.
Like Walker, Martin and Nushidian see pot prohibition imploding in short order, and that brings us to the next order of business. With marijuana no longer illegal, the broader war on drugs loses its primary raison d’etre. Marijuana users constitute the vast majority of all illicit drug users—with pot legal, the number of illicit drug users would drop from more than 20 million to somewhere around 2 million.
That could mean that the drug war collapses for lack of a suitable target. Or it could mean that the resources of the law enforcement juggernaut are focused all the more intensely on the remaining illicit drugs and their consumers. Even when marijuana legalization is a done deal, our work isn’t done until we manage to kill the beast of prohibition once and for all.
A New Leaf: The End of Cannabis Prohibition by Alyson Martin and Nushin Rashidian (2014, The New Press, 264 pp., $17.95 PB)
After Legalization: Understanding the Future of Marijuana Policy by John Walker (2014, FDL Writers Foundation, 194 pp., $14.99 PB)