“Searchlight casting for faults in the clouds of delusion”

In a few weeks, the first two decades of the 21st century will have come and gone. For myself, and the many who’ve fought for decades to end cannabis prohibition, the milestone shift toward reform and legalization of both sides of the plant – hemp and marijuana – mark a great leap in the social progress of this new century. Yet there are some who would argue that marijuana legalization is failing.

I could not disagree more. To suggest that cannabis legalization is failing is off-target and misinformed. Moreover, it presupposes that prohibition (and all of the ill-effects thereof) was a better alternative. To be sure, over the past ten years, cannabis has been legalized, regulated, commercialized, and sold in dozens upon dozens of jurisdictions around the world. Marijuana commercialization is thriving. Has the black market been completely stifled? I think it’s shortsighted to expect a black market that’s been operating for decades to lose complete market share in five years. And in fact, cartel activity related to cannabis has fallen dramatically.

So is it a failure of marijuana legalization policy?

I’ve met with cannabis policy leaders around the globe and can tell you that no jurisdiction has precisely the same reason for legalization. Some have seen legalized cannabis as a means for economic development, some for social justice, some purely for public health, and some still for the advancement of scientific research. Other jurisdictions embraced legalization for local-control-rights-related reasons, national security reasons, and some who are simply pushing progressive drug policy reform.

Given the variety of motivations, and that it’s only spanned the last couple of decades, it’s nearly impossible to conclude that any of this has been a failure. At the very least, it’s far too soon to tell.

In 2015, Raushanah A. Patterson and I published Sprung From Night Into the Sun: An Examination of Colorado’s Marijuana Regulatory Framework Since Legalization in a University of Kentucky law journal. In this article, we detailed the early stage successes of marijuana legalization in Colorado — by nearly all objective measurements.

What did that look like?

  • Marijuana-related arrests have plummeted, saving states millions of dollars and preventing the criminalization of several thousand people.
  • Youth marijuana use has not increased.
  • Reductions in opioid overdose deaths and untreated opioid use disorders.
  • Declining DUI arrests for driving under the influence (of alcohol and other drugs).
  • States are filling their coffers with hundreds of millions of dollars in marijuana tax revenues and then allocating them for social good. The new tax dollars are funding education, school construction, early literacy, bullying prevention, behavioral health, and alcohol and drug treatment.
  • In addition to all that, the legal marijuana industry is creating jobs, currently employing approximately 230,000 full and part-time workers across the country. The numbers are expected to climb as more state retail marijuana programs come online.

These positive trends that are directly correlated to cannabis commercialization and regulation continue to this day. The Colorado experiment worked and that’s evidenced by the ten other states that have followed.

Let’s look at California, geographically; the third largest state in the country, and with the largest population. Their state-wide, top-down cannabis regulation and related enforcement only began in that state this year. In California, they are experiencing significant growing pains. With a lack of political leadership on this issue, and with California’s rich history with large scale black market cannabis cultivation, is that really surprising?

In California, the black market is still very active. This is in part due to high taxation on legal cannabis, and, again, absent political leadership. But make no mistake about it, this isn’t an issue with the state’s legalization of cannabis. This is symptomatic of governments that see cannabis tax dollars as a lifeline. And it represents a seismic shift from the black market to the stock market as it relates to cannabis policy; this is no small task. In South America, the government of Uruguay recognized that for marijuana legalization to be effective, the price of legal cannabis had to be lower than the black market. Uruguay accomplished this statutorily. With proper political leadership in a place like California, these issues can be somewhat easily dealt with, as the answers are out there.

Up North, Canada is confronting the same issue. An overly-invasive cannabis regulatory scheme dramatically increases the cost of production and thus the purchase price. And the black market thrives.

Continued black market activity is not indicative of policy failure in California, or in Canada for that matter. It’s a lesson for the government to learn – you need to strike a balance between taxation and the market. This is democratic capitalism in action. The policy is designed to be easily adapted by state and local governments, and they will adapt as the commercialized marketplace evolves.

We haven’t come this far to let ourselves be discouraged by growing pains. Perhaps the issue is how we measure success. Do you put a dollar amount on it? Do we emphasize the social benefits? Maybe even health benefits? Surely it’s all of that and more.

Marijuana legalization is proof that the government still works. That people can join together around a common vision, and start a movement that can change the law. That the government still serves its function – to create laws that reflect the needs and wants of the population it governs.

In the last decade, we witnessed a movement transform into an industry. But it takes time. Not all the positives are going to come overnight, and if we expect Rome to be built in a day, it’s our perception that’s at fault. At the very least, let’s give it another decade before we make the call. Stay tuned.