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Preventing Prohibition Problems: How to handle cannabis legalization

by Mike May
Published: Jul 24, 2017   
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In an interview with Jann S. Wenner, published on the Rolling Stone website on November 29, 2016, President Obama took his stance on cannabis. When asked about the federal government’s classification of cannabis as a Schedule I drug—illegal and lumped with heroin—he said, “I am not somebody who believes that legalization is a panacea.” Then, he added, “I do believe that treating this as a public-health issue, the same way we do with cigarettes or alcohol, is the much smarter way to deal with it.” The question is: Does that mean regulating cannabis the same way as alcohol? Does that mean keeping it illegal from a federal standpoint? Either way, not everyone sees that as a good idea.

When I ask Paul Armentano, deputy director of the NORML Foundation, about this, he says, “Just as alcohol prohibition took the production and sale of booze out of the hands of licensed businesses and placed it into the hands of organized crime, marijuana prohibition takes the retail cannabis market away from licensed entrepreneurs and places it into the hands of black-market criminals and cartels that settle their business disputes with violence rather than through courts of law.” He adds, “By contrast, legalizing and regulating the adult use of cannabis provides necessary controls and transparency to the existing market—allowing regulators to better govern who can legally produce and distribute the product as well as who may legally consume it.”

Keeping control

Just because someone thinks that cannabis should be legal, that’s not the same as wanting some wild-west approach with no rules. “Americans do not desire replacing criminalization with a marijuana free-for-all,” Armentano says. “Rather, they support the enactment of a pragmatic regulatory framework that allows for the licensed commercial production and retail sale of marijuana to adults, but that also restricts and discourages its use among young people.”

That framework could look like alcohol or tobacco regulation, and some evidence suggests that might work fine. “Regulations already exist governing the use, production and retail distribution of alcohol and tobacco,” Armentano notes. Those regulations, plus public-health campaigns, seem to be working, especially for teens. Armentano says that according to the results of the 2016 Monitoring the Future Study—a federally commissioned annual survey of youth drug use—“teens’ use of alcohol and tobacco now stand at historic lows.”

So, maybe the way forward with cannabis could benefit from similar methods. But maybe it doesn’t require all the same constraints. For example, Armentano calls alcohol and tobacco “two substances that are far more dangerous and costlier to society than is the responsible adult use of cannabis.” 

Perhaps, governments—at state and federal levels—must decide what is enough. The best solution could be a balanced one. “Advocating for marijuana’s continued criminalization does nothing to offset the plant’s potential risks to the individual user and to society,” Armentano says. “It only compounds them.” Conversely, making any nation a wild west of cannabis could cause other issues. No regulation leads to problems like selling fake or ineffective products—possibly even dangerous ones. If people on different sides of the cannabis fence could understand each other a little better, maybe a reasonable balance can be found.


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