Despite over 70 years of federal prohibition, tens of thousands of people throughout the nation are right now purchasing marijuana. But only in Colorado are these transactions legal, regulated, and taxed. The product being marketed is of known quality and potency. The seller is not a black-market dealer; rather, he or she is a paid employee of a licensed business explicitly authorized to engage in such transactions. The profits from these transactions bring fiscal benefits to the local community, not the black-market economy.
For decades public officials have warned that regulating cannabis production, sales, and consumption was a practical impossibility and that any significant change in marijuana policy would cause the sky to fall. Yet the initial experience in Colorado has shown these beliefs to be misplaced. State officials can regulate cannabis in a manner that satisfies the seller, the consumer, and the taxman. This common sense regulatory framework, otherwise known as legalization, is preferable to cannabis criminalization, a doomed-to-fail public policy which burdens taxpayers, encroaches upon civil liberties, engenders disrespect for the law, and disproportionately impacts lower income classes and ethnic minorities who bear the brunt of cannabis arrests and prosecutions. The time has come to replace marijuana prohibition with public policies that properly regulate the cannabis market and that allow for pot’s private consumption by adults in a manner similar to alcohol and tobacco.
Regulations, such as age restrictions for consumers and licensing requirements for commercial producers and merchants, are effective and proven alternatives to prohibition. For example, the public’s overall consumption of alcohol and tobacco, and young people’s use in particular, now stand at near-historic lows. These results have been achieved not by imposing blanket criminalization upon society, but by legalization, regulation, and public education. Colorado (and soon-to-be Washington) lawmakers are now applying these tried and true principles to cannabis. Public officials should welcome bringing these necessary and long-overdue controls to the cannabis market. A pragmatic regulatory framework that allows for the legal, licensed commercial production and retail sale of cannabis to adults but restricts its use among young people — coupled with a legal environment that fosters open, honest dialogue between parents and children about cannabis’ potential harms — best reduces the risks associated with the plant’s use or abuse. The ongoing criminalization of cannabis only compounds these risks.
Of course, those of us who advocate for a regulated, above ground cannabis market agree that marijuana use by adults is not without concern. Where we disagree is on the matter of what is the best public policy: one of regulation or one of continued prohibition.
In short, concerns regarding cannabis’ abuse potential do not validate the substance’s continued criminalization — a policy that results in the arrest of some 800,000 Americans annually, ninety percent of which are for possession only. Just the opposite is true. There are numerous adverse health consequences associated with alcohol, tobacco, and prescription pharmaceuticals — all of which are far more dangerous and costlier to society than cannabis. It’s precisely because of these consequences that these products are regulated and their use is restricted to particular consumers and specific settings. Why would society not benefit from the imposition of similar regulations upon marijuana?
Cannabis prohibition is typified by an absence of any regulatory framework or legal controls. Prohibition drives markets underground and abdicates control of these markets to those who typically operate outside the boundaries of law. By contrast, legalization allows for lawmakers to establish legal parameters regarding where, when, and how an adult cannabis market may operate. Legalization also provides oversight regarding who may legally operate in said markets and provides guidelines so that those who do can engage in best practices. Such oversight benefits not only the consumer but also society overall. Ultimately, only criminals and cartels benefit from ongoing cannabis prohibition.
Paul Armentano is the Deputy Director of NORML — the National Organization for the reform of Marijuana Laws — and is the co-author of the book, Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?