Wed, Mar 25, 2015 - Page 11 News List

The gift of green

Nonprofit cooperatives and a government monopoly on production are among the measures regulators in the US are pondering to strike a balance between marijuana prohibition and commercial legalization

By Josh Barro  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The gift that keeps on giving.
Warning: Marijuana consumption in Taiwan is illegal.

Photo: Bloomberg/ Matthew Staver

It sounds like an idea a stoner might come up with.

It’s now legal in Washington to possess marijuana, to grow it, to smoke it and to give it away. But you’re not allowed to trade in it. You can give your neighbor up to an ounce, but if he gives you money or even bakes you a pie in exchange, that’s illegal.

The District of Columbia has legalized marijuana — but is trying not to create a market in marijuana. It’s aiming for a gift economy, not unlike what you might experience at Burning Man, but permanently.

‘GROW AND GIVE’

Other legalizing jurisdictions are taking a more traditional approach. Colorado and Washington state have both established regulated markets in marijuana that look a lot like those many states have to regulate and tax alcohol. District of Columbia council members were expected to do the same until Congress passed a law barring them from spending money to regulate marijuana. That left the city with noncommercial legalization as its only option after voters repealed the law prohibiting marijuana in the district in November.

The district’s lawmakers aren’t happy about the process, but maybe they should be pleased about the outcome. Mark Kleiman, a leading expert on drug policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, has been arguing for Washington’s “grow-and-give” approach for years. He is one of several researchers affiliated with the RAND Corp who have been urging states to look for intermediate options between prohibition and commercial legalization. They have urged states to consider approaches like nonprofit cooperatives, a government monopoly on marijuana production or a grow-your-own rule like the one Washington has ended up with, essentially by accident.

THE COSTS OF PROHIBITION

Drug prohibition imposes many costs. People go to jail for using and trading in drugs, causing major disruption to individuals’ lives and to communities. Illegal markets breed crime, including violent crime, because people in the drug business can’t use the courts to enforce contracts and settle disputes. And prohibition reduces access to a product that many people enjoy and use responsibly — although it’s not that hard to buy marijuana even where it’s illegal.

But Kleiman warns that full-scale commercial legalization comes with costs of its own. The main risk is that marijuana businesses will — as alcohol and tobacco companies did — successfully market their products to heavy users who would be better off using less, and that they will resist regulations that discourage problem use.

A recent RAND research brief says 80 percent of marijuana consumption is by daily and near-daily users. “So roughly 80 percent of marijuana companies’ profits would come from marketing to such heavy users, about half of whom currently meet clinical criteria for substance use disorders (either with marijuana itself or another substance, such as alcohol),” it concluded.

THE ‘WASHINGTON APPROACH’

Supporters of the Washington approach hope the city will enjoy the benefits of legalization without creating a well-organized commercial machine that encourages people to smoke marijuana.

“It’s very elegant, and it does have a lot of merit,” said David Frum, the conservative political commentator and an adviser to Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a group that opposes legalization but favors other drug law reforms. “It does seek to thread a path between the evils of having an industry that creates a lot of dependency and, on the other hand, having a lot of people in jail for issues that are fundamentally of dependency and not moral failing.”

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