The Corner

Politics & Policy

Marijuana and Black Markets

Chemdawg marijuana plants grow at a facility in Smiths Falls, Ontario, Canada October 29, 2019. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

Over the holidays, I had a career first: a mention in the National Enquirer. You will be relieved to hear that aliens hadn’t stolen my baby, and I hadn’t had a walk-on part in a celebrity scandal. It turns out that the publication’s website runs a regular column by the longtime marijuana-legalization activist Richard Cowan, and he objected to something I had written about his cause.

The work of the late drug-policy scholar Mark Kleiman convinced me “that possession and use should be legal — but that sales should be confined to nonprofits, user cooperatives and state monopolies.” While the war on pot should be ended, we should also dampen the incentive for marijuana sellers to make it cheaper, to market their product, to fight regulation, and generally to nurture the growth of a customer base of intensive users.

Cowan disagrees with me in part because he does not think intensive users are a problem: He says they’re just people who use marijuana more than I think appropriate. That’s a glib dismissal of a real issue, one Kleiman wrote about in 2019.

Over the past quarter-century, the population of “current” (past-month) users has more than doubled (to 22 million) and the fraction of those users who report daily or near-daily use has more than tripled (to about 35%). Those daily or near-daily users account for about 80% of the total cannabis consumed. Between a third and a half of them report the symptoms of Cannabis Use Disorder: They’re using more, or more frequently, than they intend to; they’ve tried to cut back or quit and failed; cannabis use is interfering with their other interests and responsibilities; and it’s causing conflict with people they care about.

The more important source of Cowan’s disagreement, though, seems to be a misunderstanding. He has been much more engaged in the policy debate about marijuana than I have, and surely knows more about it than I do. In this case, though, added familiarity may have been a weakness. He must be used to arguing about proposals to decriminalize marijuana possession and use while continuing to criminalize its sale and distribution. He treats the Kleiman idea as though it were identical to that one. He thinks I propose “keeping cannabis in the black market,” which he says would both fail and continue to fuel organized crime in poor countries.

But I agree with Cowan that a large black market is a major problem with the current policy. The policy I wrote about would vastly shrink that market. It would not eliminate it, of course: No policy that (for example) leaves sales to minors illegal would. I live in a state, Virginia, where liquor is sold by the state government. It’s a set-up that has its pluses and minuses, and proposals are sometimes made to change it. Adherence to the law is far from perfect: I gather that underage sales, for example, still take place. But we don’t have anything like a 1920s-style black market in alcohol.

If we can have a much smaller black market in marijuana without also developing a thriving, politically powerful marijuana industry, that seems like a better outcome than the available alternatives. Is there a good reason we can’t have it? Enquiring minds want to know.


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