‘Buzzkill’ – The unexpectedly complex challenge of marijuana legalization

‘Buzzkill’ – The unexpectedly complex challenge of marijuana legalization

Please read this great article by Patrick Radden Keefe. It delves deep into the question of, “so, exactly how do you set up a legal market for marijuana?” This turns out to be a complex and little-understood policy problem that requires foresight, novel thinking, and a willingness to experiment. It’s a long read, but it’s worth it to understand this unique new frontier in public policy, and the eclectic characters and interests it’s attracting.

To give you a taste of some of the complex issues and policy wonkery involved, take a look at this passage:

For years, Kleiman’s resistance to outright legalization was based, in part, on a fear that commercialization of the drug could triple its use. But when he arrived in Washington State he proposed an audacious solution. In order to curb problematic consumption, you could introduce a license for using cannabis. We issue licenses to drive a car or to own a gun—why not a license for consuming recreational drugs? Any adult could obtain such a license, and the license could stipulate a quota for personal monthly use. This quota would be set by the user, and could be large or small. But, once the consumer had set a quota, it could be changed only in writing—with a month’s notice. Such an innovation could counteract the dangers of excessive, impulsive use by encouraging individuals to set their own limits. Users could set very high quotas for themselves, of course, but the provision would nudge at least some citizens into being more responsible. To work properly, a personal-quota system would need a central database of marijuana users, which would allow I-502 stores to determine if customers were trying to exceed their monthly allotments.

When I initially read this, I felt immediate disdain for the idea of pot consumers needing a license to purchase marijuana. This would just be another way of enforcing the stigma around weed and would add needless regulatory costs. Indeed, I still feel a bit uneasy with the idea. But as I read the idea about the one personal-quota system, I realized how useful this system could be in keeping down consumption while still allowing total legalization: it would be like setting a New Years resolution to workout more or drink less, but only being able to break your resolution by walking to a counter, looking another person in the eye, and telling them that you just didn’t have the motivation or willpower to stick by your resolution. How often have you thought that you could really do something – eat right, wake up early, socialize more – if there were someone holding you to it. Of course, this idea shouldn’t be applied to all those areas of life, and the freedom to make our own decisions shouldn’t be given up lightly. Yet, though I detest encroachments on liberty, I understand that humans don’t always make the most rational decisions and sometimes could use a little nudge (as Richard Thaler puts it). I find myself irresistibly curious over what effects such a policy could have on reducing some of the problems of dependency, while still giving us total freedom to make our own decisions. Yet, alas, this seems to be a personal quirk that I share with the proposer of this idea, and not many others, as the article informs us:

Kleiman’s solution was ingeniously eclectic—a hybrid that balanced individual liberty and state control. Nobody liked it.

Ah well, another innovative policy experiment foiled. Consequently, this story raises a much larger question about the effectiveness of public policy in general. This is a question that we should all ask ourselves at the 50th anniversary of the Great Society reforms, and it is: “is the amount of resources we spend designing and implementing these policies worth the costs they impose?” While I firmly believe in the need for public policy in building a fairer and better society, I can’t help but be struck by a pattern in all policies that the article’s author observes:

It appears that I-502, like so many government programs, will be flawed from the start, and will demand patchwork modification in the coming years. One imperative of political life is that, at a certain point, you have to stop formulating a policy and start selling it

All new large-scale policies will require lots of tweaking, simply because the world is complicated – that’s true in any case. Yet sometimes you get the feeling that as interests become increasingly entrenched, professionalized, and territorial, it is becoming harder to formulate public policy that is truly innovative, inspiring, or even sometimes effective. I’m no pessimist or libertarian though, and I think government will always need to help us do things that are done better together. Is the ACA rollout flawed? Yes, but just look at all the lives it will save from disease or financial ruin. Should the NSA be pounded back to its place behind the line of the Fourth Amendment? You bet, but that doesn’t mean that the government shouldn’t try to alleviate social problems through policy.

In any case, I’ll stop rambling now, and let you enjoy some great reporting that manages to tell a compelling story while providing in-depth analysis of policy issues that will provoke you to examine where you stand on the issue – truly, a rare and valuable combination.


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