The Cannabis Column

A recent and well-publicized Gallup poll indicates that 58% of the population supports the legalization of marijuana use. But, critics ask, what about public support for legalizing marijuana’s manufacture and distribution? 

This is not just a snarky retort from prohibition’s opponents, but instead a solid indication of how the battle of legalization is shifting from when to how.

Kevin Sabet has inserted himself and his new group – Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) – at the forefront of opposition to marijuana’s legalization. In a Huffington Post Column he takes issue with the recent Gallup Poll’s relevance, pointing out (as have several others) that the poll is about marijuana’s use rather than its commercialization by the emerging marijuana industry. 

Sabet raises three issues. 1) The poll is about use rather than sale. 2) Gallup shows greater support for legalization than other polls. 3) The Gallup poll is based on a smaller sample size than other polls that show less support for legalization.

Nonetheless, Sabet concedes “There is no doubt that marijuana legalization enjoys more support than it did a few years ago.” One of his concerns is that the emerging marijuana industry will be a new version of “Big Tobacco,” an industrial behemoth that will spend billions to attract new customers and, in effect, be responsible for massive increases in teenage marijuana use. Sabet argues that this development does not have the same widespread support that exists for ending criminal penalties for marijuana use. 

Sabet also links to a column by Mark Kleiman, Washington State’s “Pot Czar,” who advises on regulatory policy for the state’s recreational marijuana law. Kleiman makes similar observations about the Gallup poll and related polling trends. According to Kleiman, “If the question of whether to legalize now seems largely settled, that makes the much-less-debated question of how to legalize even more topical. Some of the smarter opponents of cannabis have figured this out, and are now looking for ways of limiting the increase in drug abuse likely to follow legal availability.” 

Kleiman observes that many anti-prohibitionists remain on auto-pilot in their opposition to any form of marijuana law reform, arguing that “By doing so, the warriors will help to ensure that the legal system that eventually arises will be over-commercialized, under-regulated, and under-taxed.”

This debate illustrates what’s at stake as Colorado and Washington implement their new regulatory models, and as new states potentially approve legalization measures in the next election cycle and create their own regulatory models. Interestingly, many marijuana users also have concerns about how the new marijuana industry will be regulated. Most marijuana reform advocates have misgivings about handing over the marijuana industry to corporate America, favoring instead small-scale local production models and widespread personal cultivation. 

While this may be an impractical approach to supply large scale demand, even at present usage levels, it underscores widespread interest in just how marijuana will be regulated and controlled in a legal market. This is not just a matter of critics of legalization versus proponents.

If marijuana is over-taxed, it will artificially maintain high prices that will discourage consumer participation in the new market. If marijuana is under-regulated, it will lead to public backlash against legal markets as an alternative to prohibition. And, frankly, if marijuana is over-commercialized, this may unite marijuana users and critics of legalization to seek more realistic controls over corporate commerce – especially if regulations create corporate monopolies at the expense of personal cultivation. 

These are just a few issues that frame this evolved debate over marijuana’s legalization. It is important, though, to recognize that the context of the debate is rapidly changing. Kleiman is right, the question now is how to legalize marijuana, and this means how to actually implement a regulated market. 

States will get several years to experiment with different regulatory models before there is public support, and public demand for a national policy. But when this question gets considered at the national level, Sabet is right on the money. The big money will decide the issue in Congress. 

Supporters of marijuana’s legalization won’t agree with Sabet on much, and his arguments against legalization are and will continue to be strenuously opposed by reform advocates. Sabet and Klieman raise an important issue in response to the Gallup Poll, though, and one that all marijuana reform advocates should understand. Right now, the issue is all about regulation – who profits and how does this affect both consumers and public interest.