Marijuana Legalization – no longer a pipe dream?

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano has introduced a marijuana legalization bill in California: The Marijuana Control, regulation and education act (AB 390)

In a nutshell, here’s what the bill would do: “Remove all penalties under California law for the cultivation, transportation, sale, purchase, possession, and use of marijuana, natural THC and paraphernalia by persons over the age of 21,” “prohibit local and state law enforcement officials from enforcing federal marijuana laws…” and establish a fee of $50 an ounce on marijuana on top of whatever pot will cost in a legal future – which legalization advocates say is about half what it costs now. This tax rate figures at about a buck a joint.

It may not have a chance, but is it a sign of the times that we’re actually going beyond fighting for medical marijuana bills and then getting a decrim bill passed in Massachusetts and now talking about a legalization bill?
Is it possible that the “L” word is becoming less taboo? I have never shied away from it, because I believe it’s the true answer — legalization does not mean an absense of regulation (quite the contrary – legalization is required in order to have regulation), and decriminalization, while a softer more gentler word, is a very poor substitute as it tend to maintain all the black market problems of prohibition.
So people are talking about legalization. Mark Kleiman, who has previously supported some kind of legalization of marijuana, but has generally used the “L” word as a derisive epithet aimed at “drug policy reformers” (yes, in scare quotes) who don’t agree with his plans to save prohibition as a whole, has now come out with a post titled Legalizing cannabis: is the ground shifting?

Obviously, this isn’t something the Obama Administration is going to jump on, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a big move late in a second Obama term or sometime in the term of his successor (assuming the Democrats keep winning elections). If I had to quote odds, I’d say about even money on legalization within fifteen years.

The update in his post is priceless:

Matt Yglesias points out that legalized pot is more popular than Republicanism. Yet under the rules of the media-political game as currently played, Sarah Palin’s lunatic views, or John Boehner’s count as respectable opinion, while cannabis legalization remains a “fringe” position.

So true. And it’s nice to have an academic like Kleiman agree that legalization should not be considered a “fringe” position. Perhaps his academic colleagues, such as Peter Reuter will get the message as well and start actually having policy discussions about it, instead of taking the cheap, incomplete and dishonest approach as they did in the 2005 studies by AEI and RAND.

Nor do we explore the merits and demerits of legalizing drugs, even though legalization is perhaps the most prominent and hotly debated topic in drug policy. Our analysis takes current policy as its starting point, and the idea of repealing the nation’s drug laws has no serious support within either the Democratic or Republican party.

It’s because nobody has been willing to have the “open, honest national dialogue” about legalization (as recently called for by the El Paso city council) that we have so little hard information as to what options could exist in a legalized market (and really, isn’t this what public policy experts should be… expert at?)
Kleiman says he’s “not a big fan of legalization on the alcohol model.” He’s convinced that any form of drug legalization will involve massive commercialization along the lines of beer ads.

As we did with alcohol, the country will lurch from one bad policy (prohibition) to another (commercial legalization).

While that is certainly one option (and I don’t see it as negatively as Kleiman does), why does the only other option have to be a half-assed decriminalization?

So I continue to favor a “grow your own” policy, under which it would be legal to grow, possess, and use cannabis and to give it away, but illegal to sell it. Of course there would be sales, and law enforcement agencies would properly mostly ignore those sales. But there wouldn’t be billboards.

The vast majority of people won’t grow their own. They aren’t equipped or interested. Why keep the black market? And even worse, why keep the cannabis option for law enforcement agencies to target people for arrest?
Finally, the grow-your-own only option does not allow for variety or the cannabis connoisseur. I have 7 kinds of single-malt scotch, and I enjoy them all for different occasions or moods. Is one expected to grow 7 different strains to enjoy them all? (not everyone consumes dope just to get wasted, just as not everyone drinks alcohol just to get stupid).
Why not look at other alternatives? Here’s one (and maybe we’ll come up with some more in comments or in future posts).
Grow-Your-Own plus Legal Cannabis Cafes

  • Growing your own cannabis would be legal for your own consumption, or to give away. No sales allowed. No taxes levied.
  • Licensed Cannabis cafes (like in Amsterdam, only fully legal) would provide social outlets for enjoying cannabis (vaporized or eaten — no smoking in most states, don’t you know), and also for purchasing cannabis to take home, complete with a menu of choices (and probably a drive-through window). Sales tax added to all cannabis.
  • Licensed growers would supply the cafes (in some cases, cafes may also grown their own).
  • Cafes could advertise, but no advertising for “brands” of pot
  • Commercialization: You’ll probably end up with a chain of cannabis cafes (like Starbucks) along with local ones but what you won’t have is a Budweiser.

What other options do you see?
Note: Kleiman sees legalization in 15 years. Paul in comments sees “de facto marijuana legalization in about 5 years in the majority of states.” I’m really not sure how to gauge this one. I agree with Paul that the “states” are the issue. You can’t legalize marijuana at the federal level alone. It has to be removed from the federal laws, of course, but then it’s up to the individual states. Now maybe some states like California will try legalization even with the federal laws on the books, but it’ll always be messy.
At some point, the federal law will cease, and then the states will be left to figure out a solution. Us “drug policy reformers” will be there with plenty of suggestions. It would be nice if the public policy folks joined in.
In fact, what would really be nice is if RAND or AEI or some other think-tank or coalition of academics were to pull together all the “legalization” experts and come up with a comprehensive study along the lines of: “Cannabis Legalization Models for the States.”
Now that would be some useful public policy.
Update: More discussion on this at TalkLeft.

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