The Agenda

California as America’s Marijuana Breadbasket

Mark Kleiman offers a possible future for California’s marijuana economy:


Under repeal, California could easily supplant Mexico as the primary source of marijuana for North America, leading to a price collapse and a surge in cannabis use nationwide. We couldn’t expect Washington to just stand back and let cheap California marijuana flood the national market. As California police stepped back, we’d probably see a surge in federal enforcement. With volume and sales rising, it’s likely that some of the resulting conflicts among growers and dealers, and between them and the law, would be violent; that’s the nature of large-scale criminal enterprise.

So repeal is no free lunch, but it’s still better than the status quo. We shouldn’t let familiarity blind us to the everyday horrors of current policy: $10 billion a year in revenue for criminals, including the drug-trafficking organizations that kill thousands of people per month in Mexico;30,000 people behind bars for pot-dealing in the U.S.; and 750,000 marijuana possession arrests each year. Repeal in California couldn’t, by itself, change that. But it could help, reducing the heavy burden of state and local law enforcement and incarceration, and moving up the schedule for the national debate that, sooner or later, is surely coming.

As I understand it, Kleiman is embracing the stance of some of my friends and colleagues, namely that the repeal of criminal laws against cannabis in California could create an intergovernmental crisis — and that this is a good thing insofar as it forces us to reexamine federal drug laws and out international treaty commitments. Kleiman doesn’t make this argument glibly, highlighting the dangers of the commercialization of cannabis:

Most cannabis users smoke only occasionally, without damaging themselves or others. Increasing the number of occasional users wouldn’t be a significant social problem. But marijuana consumption is concentrated among a minority of heavy, habitual users; any growth in that population is undesirable. In addition, even in the face of an explicit ban on sales to minors, a big decrease in the price paid by adults would surely trickle down to youth. It’s hard to be indifferent to the risk of increased cannabis use among middle-school and high-school students; the younger someone starts smoking pot, the greater the risk of getting stuck in a bad habit. More smoking would also lead to more stoned driving. That’s not as dangerous as drunk driving, but it’s plenty dangerous enough.

Like Kleiman, I prefer legalization without commercialization, an idea I first encountered in his writing. As he explains, however, this approach is incompatible with existing federal law.


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