Legalize Marijuana, Don’t Socialize It

The campaign to end the War on Drugs has gained momentum in recent years with state ballot initiatives legalizing recreational marijuana use in Colorado and Washington, and a similar referendum coming to Washington, DC on this year’s general election ballot. Along with the push to reform sentencing laws, even retroactively, for nonviolent drug offenses, it appears that huge strides are being made in allowing free citizens the right to enjoy relatively harmless substances as they choose. But as with any government effort, the reality is far from the idealized campaign promise.

In Washington state, which decriminalized small amounts of marijuana possession and consumption on the 2012 ballot, state-sanctioned retail sales just began in July. However, as this is still deep blue Washington we’re talking about, there is far from a free market for the stuff. The state has a strict licensing program that only allows certain retailers to sell marijuana legally, from only certain licensed producers, resulting in only one place to buy in all of Seattle on opening day. This isn’t exactly Starbucks for weed.

Another restriction on legal sales, this one with plenty of realistic legal justification, is the requirement that product sold at retail must be grown in-state. Since marijuana is still a controlled substance at the federal level, they would run into far more legal problems if it were imported from elsewhere. The Obama administration has announced a hands-off approach to state marijuana laws, but that wouldn’t be sustainable if it became an interstate commerce issue. The Drug Enforcement Agency for its part isn’t quite as on board, so for now it’s wise of Washington and other states to keep their legalization efforts as in-house aspossible.

It remains illegal to purchase marijuana from a person or business without a state license in Washington. But there’s plenty of reason to do so given the 25% sales tax added to every sale and the state-imposed restrictions on production and sale, which have thusfar produced a predictable supply shortfall.

Colorado began a similar licensing regime for the legal sale of marijuana this January after their successful ballot initiative in 2012. Certain dispensaries are granted licenses by the state to sell limited quantities of in-state grown product to state residents and even smaller quantities to out-of-state tourists. Colorado imposes the same 25% state tax on marijuana sales, and municipalities can add their own sales tax on top. And just like Washington, it remains illegal to buy any quantity from unlicensed sellers.

These new state regimes are certainly an improvement over the sweeping absurdities of the decades old nationwide War on Drugs, but are they really legalization? High taxes, proscriptive regulation, strict licensing systems are more accurately socialization. It defeats the purpose of decriminalization to create such complicated legal requirements that leave the unregulated, still-illegal black market still a more reliable and attractive source.

Realistically, marijuana is getting the same treatment where it’s being decriminalized as liquor in most states. Stores, restaurants, and bars have to get liquor licenses to sell, and what and how much can be sold is regulated by state agencies. But marijuana has existed in a truly free (albeit illegal) market for decades. It will be almost impossible to successfully transition it to a regulated, socialized, state-run enterprise within a few years.

What exactly would be the harm in just…legalizing it? Either it’s harmful or it’s not. Either adults have the right to enjoy it or they don’t. The cherry-picking, hair-splitting, government-centralized middle ground is a joke. Eliminate the civil and criminal penalties, and let the existing free market handle the rest, as it has been doing for decades. The same people who produce and consume it now would continue to do so, but with more freedom and less risk. States would have to spend much less money on prevention, prosecution, and incarceration.

As usual, federalism is the answer here. In Colorado and Washington, the nascent regimes have just traded bloated criminal justice operations for bloated licensing and regulatory operations. Their excise taxes will tip the scales for a while, but there are economic consequences to those as well. Now we just need another state or two to try true legalization and compare their results.

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