The Agenda

Mark Kleiman on the Non-Commercial Legalization of Cannabis

Mark A. R. Kleiman has written a very insightful post on how to approach the regulation of cannabis, a subject of great interest to me. 

On the cannabis front, my plea is for a “grow-your-own” policy: consumers would be allowed to cultivate pot for their own use, to give it away, or to join small consumer-owned co-ops to produce the stuff for them. No commercial sales.

In Kleiman’s view, commercial sales would create a powerful marketing and lobbying machine that would encourage cannabis consumption. On paternalistic grounds, Kleiman is concerned about the public health consequences of a dramatic expansion of cannabis consumption. Given that decriminalization would already lower the effective price of cannabis, this strikes me as a legitimate concern: 

To the consumer, developing a bad habit is bad news. To the marketing executive, it’s the whole point of the exercise. For any potentially addictive commodity or activity, the minority that gets stuck with a bad habit consumes the majority of the product. So the entire marketing effort is devoted to cultivating and maintaining the people whose use is a problem to them and a gold mine to the industry.Take alcohol, for example. Divide the population into deciles by annual drinking volume. The top decile starts at four drinks a day, averaged year-round. That group consumes half of all the alcohol sold. The next decile does from two to four drinks a day. Those folks sop up the next thirty percent. Casual drinkers – people who have two drinks a day or less – take up only 20% of the total volume. The booze companies cannot afford to have their customers “drink in moderation.” 

Because distillers are dependent on “problem drinkers,” they deploy an effective, well-funded lobby to stymie efforts to reduce alcohol consumption and indeed to permit the emergence of potential substitutes or complements to traditional wines and spirits, hence the ban on breathable alcohol. Though cannabis consumption is less dangerous than binge drinking, the impact of full-blown legalization is unpredictable:

The rate of problem use among cannabis users is lower than the rate of problem drinking among drinkers (lifetime risk of about 10% v. lifetime risk of at least 15%) but that’s under conditions of illegality and high price. The risks of chronic heavy cannabis use aren’t as dramatic as the risks of chronic heavy drinking – the stuff doesn’t kill neurons or rot your liver, and generates less crazy behavior than beer – but that doesn’t make those risks negligible. Ask any parent whose fifteen-year-old has decided that cannabis is more fun than geometry. Of the 10% of cannabis smokers who become heavy daily smokers for a while, the median duration of the first spell of heavy use (not counting the risks of relapse) is 44 months. That’s not a small chunk to take out a lifetime, especially a young lifetime.

Kleiman is a frank paternalist, and his arguments are potentially discomfiting for those of us of a libertarian bent. But as a prudential first step, I think he’s right to prefer non-commercial legalization. 

Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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