Pubdate: Sat, 14 Aug 2010
Source: Atlantic Monthly, The (US)
Copyright: 2010 by The Atlantic Monthly Company.
Author: Mark Kleiman


Two items on my list of drug-policy reforms drew the most flak in
comments:  the abolition of the minimum legal drinking age and the
non-commercial legalization of cannabis.

Note that the drinking-age idea was paired with a tenfold increase in
alcohol taxes to about a dollar a drink, roughly doubling the retail
price of alcohol. That, plus a zero-tolerance policy on drinking and
driving for teenagers, would get you most of the benefits of the
current 21-year-old MLDA (and lots of benefits the MLDA can't provide)
without making tens of millions of teenagers into scofflaws.  It's a
good general principle that a law that's widely broken is a bad law,
and 90% of American 18-year-olds have sampled alcohol, despite the
laws against it.

On the cannabis front, my plea is for a "grow-your-own" policy:
consumers would be allowed to cultivate pot for their own use, to give
it away, or to join small consumer-owned co-ops to produce the stuff
for them. No commercial sales.

"Why not?" demanded several outraged commenters. Why allow use but not

Two words provide the gist of the answer:  marketing and lobbying. A
legal cannabis industry, like the legal beer industry, the legal
tobacco industry, the legal fast-food and junk-food industries, and
the legal gambling industry, would do everything in its power to
expand its sales, including taking political action to weaken whatever
regulations and minimize whatever taxes were imposed.

Well, again, why not?  What's wrong with persuading someone to engage
in what would be a perfectly lawful behavior?

Nothing, if the behavior is harmless as well as lawful.  Everything,
if the behavior predictably inflicts harm on the person being

But cannabis use (like drinking, eating, and gambling) is harmless to
most of the people who engage in it. Is it wrong to suggest that
someone start a potentially benign activity simply because it might
turn into a bad habit?

Might. "Aye, there's the rub." To the consumer, developing a bad habit
is bad news. To the marketing executive, it's the whole point of the
exercise. For any potentially addictive commodity or activity, the
minority that gets stuck with a bad habit consumes the majority of the
product. So the entire marketing effort is devoted to cultivating and
maintaining the people whose use is a problem to them and a gold mine
to the industry.

Take alcohol, for example. Divide the population into deciles by
annual drinking volume. The top decile starts at four drinks a day,
averaged year-round. That group consumes half of all the alcohol sold.
The next decile does from two to four drinks a day. Those folks sop up
the next thirty percent. Casual drinkers - people who have two drinks
a day or less - take up only 20% of the total volume. The booze
companies cannot afford to have their customers "drink in moderation."

The relationship is obvious once you think about it. One of what the
beer commercials of my youth called "real beer drinkers - people who
drink a case or more of beer a week" is worth two dozen people who
only consume a drink a week, which is roughly the national median.

Not everyone in those top two deciles has a diagnosable drinking
problem; you could have four drinks every day and never be actively
drunk. But that's not the typical pattern. Most of those folks have an
alcohol abuse disorder. And they're the target market. "An innkeeper
loves a drunkard," says the Yiddish proverb, "except as a son-in-law."

Since the alcoholic beverage industries are as dependent on alcohol
abuse as a chronic drunk is on his wake-up drink, they fiercely resist
any effective policies for curtailing it, starting with higher taxes.
(Contrary to myth, taxation takes most of its bit out of heavy
drinking rather than casual drinking, because alcohol is a much bigger
budget item for heavy drinkers.)  Would it be technologically possible
to have package clerks and bartenders check customers against a list
of people who had lost their legal drinking privileges as a result of
a criminal conviction for drunk driving or drunken assault?  Sure it
would. Would the industry hold still for it?  No way.

So the prospect of a legal cannabis industry working hard to produce
as many chronic stoners as possible, and fighting hard against any
sort of effective regulation, fills me with fear.  I don't believe
that the actual tobacco companies would enter the cannabis market, but
I don't doubt that the cannabis companies that would emerge from full
commercial legalization would have all of morals  the tobacco outfits
morals, and a less tainted product to sell.

The rate of problem use among cannabis users is lower than the rate of
problem drinking among drinkers (lifetime risk of about 10% v.
lifetime risk of at least 15%) but that's under conditions of
illegality and high price. The risks of chronic heavy cannabis use
aren't as dramatic as the risks of chronic heavy drinking - the stuff
doesn't kill neurons or rot your liver, and generates less crazy
behavior than beer - but that doesn't make those risks negligible. Ask
any parent whose fifteen-year-old has decided that cannabis is more
fun than geometry. Of the 10% of cannabis smokers who become heavy
daily smokers for a while, the median duration of the first spell of
heavy use (not counting the risks of relapse) is 44 months. That's not
a small chunk to take out a lifetime, especially a young lifetime.

Cannabis isn't harmful enough to be worth banning. But that doesn't
mean that it's safe to give America's marketing geniuses a new vice to
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MAP posted-by: Matt