A response to Kleiman on cannabis

| Comments (13) | Pharma
Mark Kleiman has a generally sensible article on improved drug policy. One of the recommendations strikes me as a bit off, though:
Full commercial legalization of cannabis, on the model now applied to alcohol, would vastly increase the cannabis-abuse problem by giving the marketing geniuses who have done such a fine job persuading children to smoke tobacco, drink to excess and supersize themselves with junk food another vice to foster. However, if current laws were changed to make it illegal to sell cannabis or to exchange it for anything of value, but not to grow it, possess it, use it or give it away, the costs of the current control regime could be sharply reduced without greatly increasing the size of the marijuana consumption problem. Such a law could not effectively prevent private sales any more than a ban on gambling can prevent private poker games. Its goal would be to prevent mass marketing.

In the short-to-medium term such a policy would have only a slight impact on use. The biggest effect would be on those who now cease marijuana use as they enter the workforce but might instead keep using the drug. In the long term, there would probably be modest growth in cannabis use due to decreased social stigma and employment risk; how much of that growth in use would be among people who subsequently got into trouble with the drug is harder to guess.

I suppose it depends on what you mean by "medium term", but I'm not sure that this is right. Most of what keeps cannabis illegal is its general social unacceptability; if you go to a party at someone's house they're quite likely to offer you a drink. Indeed, a party where no alcohol is being served is considered kind of odd. This is true of cannabis in some circles but not most. As a consequence, as was true for many years with gays, many people don't know (or rather don't know that they know) anyone who uses cannabis and so rather than having the correct issue which is that it's fairly harmless—and almost certainly less harmful than alcohol—think of it as drugs. This thinking is of course encouraged by the way that drug education and propaganda in this country treats all drugs as more or less the same.

So, What if home cannabis production and use was legal? Well, I would foresee two effects. First, cannabis would get a lot more available. Cannabis production is basically gardening and fairly low-volume gardening at that. A single cannabis plant yields around .75-1.25 pounds of usable product. A casual daily user might go through an ounce of marijuana in a year. A very heavy user might go through an ounce of marijuana a month. Given that gardeners typically grow a lot more than one of any kind of plant, it would be easy for any grower to produce plenty to supply most of their friends full-time. My point here isn't that everyone would but simply that there wouldn't be any logistical barrier to doing so and so as a practical matter anyone who wanted to get marijuana would be able to.

The second effect is that you would would expect semi-public marijuana use to become a lot more common, even if the total amount of marijuana use went down, since people would not feel the need to hide from their friends. I have friends who don't drink but they know I do and I don't feel uncomfortable cracking open a beer when they're in the room. If marijuana use were legal, one would expect to see people behave similarly (with the current social disapproval of smoking applying counterpressure here.)

Those are short to short-medium term effects. In the longer term, frequent contact between users and non-users is likely to lead them to the the non-users drawing the (proper) conclusion that it's quite possible to use marijuana without being an unemployed Phish-listening deadbeat who lives in your parents' basement. Doesn't it seem likely that this will produce a ratchet effect whereby marijuana laws get progressively looser and use gets a lot more common? I'm not saying that that's a bad thing, but it seems like a likely result of what Kleiman proposes.


This misses the point that marijuana grown in a garden is likely to be far less potent than marijuana grown in high-energy special-purpose facilities. There is a very good discussion of this in The Botany of Desire which discuses how driving cultivation of marijuana undergroud/indoors (one aspect of the drug policy) had some very unintended effects on the average potency of the plant. That, in turn, means that few regular users of marijuana are likely to turn to garden growing, and that relatively little garden-grown marijuana seems likely to be sold or traded.

The book is, by the way, really not about marijuana or drug policy, but about how plants "see" cultivation; it covers apples, potatoes, marijuana, and tulips, among other things. It's quite worth reading, even if you have no interest in the psychoactive cultigens.

I don't agree with this analysis. There are two components to potency: genetics and environment. On the genetic side, it won't be particularly difficult to get high-grade seeds--I'd expect people to trade them the way they used to trade sourdough starter. On the environment side, even a fairly sophisticated operation is on the same order of complexity as homebrewing, which mahy people do quite regularly.

The number of home brewers vs. the number of beer drinkers is, indeed, a good estimate of the number of people who would actually give them similar inputs to the professional growers. Present, but a small proportion of the total.

The environment side is critical here, by the way, to force the plants to focus on producing buds without ever allowing them to seed. The commercial plants are also grown under extraordinarily high energy lights, with very limited or no night cycle. Again, permit me to recommend the book to you, as it is much better than I could represent.

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