I’m an advocate of drug legalization. I believe that drug prohibition has not worked to curb drug consumption, and, in fact, that it has driven drug consumers to more harmful substances (see, for example, Mark Thornton’s, “What Explains Crystal Meth?“). I question the legitimacy of forcefully limiting drug consumption, in the first place. I’m also of the opinion that if drugs were legalized, competition would drive the quality of drugs up. This includes gradually making them less dangerous, or developing better substitutes. But, are all changes towards full legalization equally as good? Half steps may actually make the path towards legalization more difficult than they otherwise would be. California provides a perfect case study.
In 2010, a ballot initiative was introduced to legalize marijuana. Specifically, the law would allow persons 21 and over to hold up to 28.5 grams of marijuana and the ability to grow small amounts of the plant at home for personal use. It also would open the drug to taxation and wholesale commercial production, by licensed firms. More information on the initiative is available on Wikipedia. Prop 19 failed to pass the elections, with 54.5 percent of Californian voters choosing “no.”
According to one poll, 52 percent of Americans support the legalization of marijuana. If we take this as a cross-country mean, my guess is that the statistic for California is marginally greater than or equal to 52 percent. So, why did Prop 19 fail at the ballot? One explanation is that there was insufficient advertisement of the initiative, implying that those who did vote were a non-random sample of Californian voters — that is, the voting population was biased against marijuana. I think this probably has some truth to it. It’s also true that California has a significant population of conservatives, so the typical belief that California is a relatively liberal state may not always be true. But, another major impediment to the initiative’s passing was the fact that California growers, who supply the medical marijuana industry, opposed the legalization attempt.
California has a large market for marijuana. Much of it is legal, thanks to the legalization (Prop 215) of medical marijuana in 1996. California dispensaries are supplied, in large part, by local growers. A more comprehensive marijuana legalization threatened to depress the price of the plant, for two major reasons,
- It was expected that the number of suppliers would increase;
- The legalization of limited personal production would have decreased demand for suppliers’ product.
Current cannabis growers are not interested in competition or falling prices, because it means a loss of market share and profits. Thus, in California, they put a lot of money, time, and effort into blocking the passing of Prop 19. Had the marijuana industry been behind the initiative — or, even, neutral —, I’m sure Prop 19 probably would have passed.
This brings up the question of whether we should be careful when proposing incremental legislation, with the long-term objective of full legalization. In California we see that the legalization of marijuana created a new marijuana industry, and the profitability of this industry created an incentive for the industry to oppose further legalization. I don’t know the details of how California’s growers opposed Prop 19 very well, but, whether indirectly or directly, the creation of the industry created the opportunity for rent-seeking, and this has hurt the chances of full legalization. Now, public opinion has to change to a sufficient degree to overcome the industrial opposition, and Californians have to deal with the risk of voting for diluted future propositions, with terms that may be more favorable for current cannabis growers.
In other words, it may be a superior strategy to just wait for the right time to push for full legalization, because in our current environment there’s too much of a risk of unintentionally creating entrenched interests that actually hurt your long-term objectives. It’s really too bad, because marijuana is one of those goods where it no longer makes much sense to prohibit it. In California, I don’t think it’s a stretch to claim that over 50 percent of residents have consumed weed (I’d put the figure closer to ¾ of total residents). It’s already accepted in our popular culture. By now, in my opinion, a progressive society would have fully legalized it. But, a premature medical use legalization has put at risk short term legalization for the sake of a very limited gain — you’re almost just as well off continuing to buy the drug illegally, since the prices and quality are about the same.
This is something other states should definitely consider when they start to discuss the legalization of marijuana in their own legislatures. In some states, such as Colorado and Washington, the time may be ripe to just try full legalization (although, maybe not). But, in other states the odds may not be so favorable. In these states, it may be worthwhile just to wait for the right time, rather than opt for half baked measures that may make legalization more difficult in the long-run.