Americans tend to be conservatives in the sense that we tend to be risk averse. We don’t want to change our system unless there is a really good reason. In the case of our current policy towards marijuana, there is an overwhelming sense that the current federal policy of criminalization isn’t working. We have been locking up too many people for marijuana use and it is only ruining lives. Our jails take nonviolent drug users and by immersing them into a new life with a group of hardened criminals for years, they become more likely to develop a new kind of lifestyle that goes beyond simple marijuana use when they get out, particularly when employers actively discriminate against them as ex-felons. So they gain new habits, skills, and social networks that make crime more productive and they lose opportunities to do legitimate work.
Unfortunately, Americans tend to have simplistic, fundamentalist views about drug policy and think that if statist criminalization doesn’t work, then the most radical polar opposite must be best: full-out free-market legalization. They don’t see that a more conservative, incrementalist approach would be a better option: decriminalization. That is what a recent Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy survey found. Vox made a graph showing the result:
The least popular option is decriminalization and I think that is because most Americans don’t understand what that means. That means that you allow permits for legal medical use of marijuana, but rather than using jail time to penalize use, you just use financial penalties (fines) to prevent a marijuana industry from becoming profitable for corporations and lobbyists.
“Decriminalization” is a lousy term for this because it doesn’t mean that marijuana would lose all criminal sanctions; it only means that penalties would be reduced. A better term would be “deprisonization” because it eliminates prison sentences while replacing them with fines, probation, community service, and drug treatment. That would change drug penalties from being an incredibly expensive burden on taxpayers (jail time) into a moneymaker (fines) that can be used to help pay for rehabilitation (drug treatment). Community service is also better for rehabilitation that jail time and more useful for the community.
Full legalization would make the drug problem worse whereas many decriminalization programs actually do a better job of reducing drug demand than jail time. If marijuana is fully legalized, then Cargill will invest millions bioengineering more potent new varieties that will be grown on giant corporate farms. Phillip Morris will manufacture joints and vapes and hire Madison-Avenue corporations to market it on TV. Walmart will sell it at the check-out counters. With the economies of scale that these corporations can bring to the industry, marijuana will be the cheapest intoxicant in all of human history. A potent dose will sell for a couple cents at most. It will be about as expensive as the little sugar packets that restaurants give away for free with their tea and coffee. For this reason, I don’t foresee new marijuana bars springing up around our college campuses, but restaurants might give it away as a loss leader because it is an appetite inducer and Doritos might even include free joints with each bag of chips to give people more munchies.
This drop in costs is already happening in Washington State, where after legalizing medical marijuana, “the cost per hour of cannabis intoxication ‘has fallen below $1, cheaper than beer or going to the movies.'” There is preliminary evidence that this is causing a rise in cannabis use disorder in states like Washington which have legalized recreational use.
The danger of fully legalizing marijuana is that it will dramatically change American culture a bit like the advent of tobacco changed Western society. America is now permanently addicted to alcohol and tobacco because there is a concentrated financial interest (corporations) and a large group of users who fight to maintain these industries that each kill more people than all illegal drugs put together (although rapidly rising opioid deaths may have beat out alcohol for the first time last year) and cause numerous other social costs like illness and family breakups. If marijuana is fully legalized, it will essentially be given away for free and we have no idea how that will change society.
That is why the conservative approach to marijuana policy should be decriminalization first. Then if that goes well (and I’m sure it will be better than current policy), we will have more information to help us consider whether we should attempt full legalization. Going straight to full legalization might be better than the status quo because it eliminates the horrible social cost of jailing so many able-bodied youth but it might be worse and decriminalization would achieve all the benefits without the main risk of creating a marijuana industry with the corporate resources to engineer a permanent change in American culture.