Nearing the end of World War II, Keynesian-minded economists freaked out. The wage and price controls put in place to bolster the war effort were soon coming to an end. Paul Samuelson, the economist who unleashed the crazed thinking of Keynes on college campuses all over the world with his textbook Economics, led the worrywart effort. Writing in Postwar Economic Problems, Samuelson expressed concern that demobilization of military personnel and the liquidating of price controls combined with deficit reduction would usher in “the greatest period of unemployment and industrial dislocation which any economy has ever faced.”
Samuelson was, of course, embarrassingly wrong. America’s post-war economy boomed. The cutting of government spending and relaxing of draconian regulation allowed markets to flourish. The prosperity that took place is often hearkened back to as a Golden Era by liberals and conservatives alike.
As cultural apprehension to marijuana legalization declines in the United States, the same kind of scaremongering is taking place. Two states have already legalized the sale of the drug, while others are decriminalizing possession. Even the District of Columbia, which is supposed to be directly under the jurisdiction of the federal government, has decriminalized mary jane – though the act must first be reviewed by Congress.
Anyone who pays attention to the news cycle and cultural trends knows that marijuana will soon be fully legal. At this point, with moral relativism running rampant and relaxed social mores, the transition is practically inevitable. From a freedom perspective, it’s wonderful. Locking people away in criminal warehouses for smoking a plant is idiotic and costly. More fundamental, it denies the right of self-ownership of drug users. But even ending this injustice frightens some folks who are worried that weed legalization is just another pit stop down the path of moral deprivation.
The fear displayed in op-ed pages and on the nightly news is that chaos will soon engulf the nation. New York Times columnist David Brooks, spokesmen for all things prudent and boring, recently expressed dismay over the end of weed prohibition. His argument was summed up as “stoned people do stupid things.” That’s not exactly a scientific breakthrough; nor is it wrong. It’s just the reality of cannabis’s effect.
Some have latched on to the stupefying effect of smoking grass and are using it as an excuse for government to control its production and distribution. In an interview with The American Conservative, University of California professor Mark Kleiman expressed apprehension to the marketability of weed. As the state of Colorado is issuing licenses for businesses to sell grass, Kleiman told interviewer Kelley Vlahos, “I’m pretty sure that commercialization is not the best approach, which is the current approach we’re taking.” Instead of allowing the marketplace determine the “right” distribution for pot, Kleiman wants “federal legislation” that forces states “to structure their pot markets such that they won’t get captured by commercial interests.”
What Kleiman and like-minded advocates such as National Families in Action really oppose isn’t markets, but really the wide distribution and use of marijuana. They’re more in favor of a non-profit model or state-run stores, similar to how wine and spirits are sold in certain states. That way, it will be easier to control the flow of pot as it hits the streets.
If government prohibition actually worked, there would be an efficiency argument to make for curtailing the use of marijuana. But we know from experience that outlawing something doesn’t mean it ceases to exist. Under prohibition, people pay a premium to get their fix, whether it be through or higher prices or purchasing drugs from shady characters. If the concern is unsafe streets and zonked out teens dropping out of school, then perhaps the effects of prohibition should be further examined – not commercialization.
Markets have a way of satisfying consumer demand with adequate supply. It’s a trial-and-error process, and one that rationally distributes goods in the end. Allowing markets to flourish is how society increases its material abundance. The marijuana industry is no different.
Now, it could be argued that ensuring an adequate supply of marijuana is exactly what the semi-prohibitionists want. But even in the alcohol industry, where government regulators still have a large say in marketing, there is still the occasional problem of drunkenness in the streets. There is still alcoholism. There is still violence committed while under the influence. These are all negative effects of alcohol, but there isn’t an epidemic of drunkards rioting in the streets. Social pressure to stay sober during working hours seems to be doing the job adequately enough.
If marijuana were to be treated like liquor and beer, it’s doubtful the outcome would be any different. When alcohol prohibition was ended by Franklin Roosevelt, crime dropped significantly and the country returned to a saner, more normal period in terms of law enforcement. There wasn’t bloodshed in the streets. Certainly, some states eased into the legalization process. But all the hand-wringing was for naught.
It’s presumptuous to think radical change will go over without a few bumps in the road. But it’s even more hubristic to believe that government should have a heavy hand in slowing the process for everyone’s benefit. When it comes to slowing the marketability of marijuana through government bureaucracy, the only outcome will be the centralizing of control and crushing of innovation. It’s the old bootleggers and baptists coalition where those with scruples aid illegal traffickers by using government to forcefully shutter supply chains. Like much of political economy, good intentions lead to unintended consequences; and that includes the empowering of unsavory types.
Thankfully, even the evangelical opposition to marijuana is starting to fade away. In Colorado Springs, Colorado, five brothers who run two pot dispensaries do so because of marijuana’s pain-alleviating effect. As graduates of an evangelical high school, the Stanley brothers stay away from “stoner” culture and urge their customers to use the drug responsibly. This is just one of the outcomes a marketplace in marijuana can achieve. Actual suffering is being treated in a way that is beneficial. As conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan writes, “[I]f you have ever met a child with seizures who, thanks to this plant, can begin to construct a calmer, saner life, it will affect you deeply.”
There is wisdom in caution against toward social change. Running headlong into a good thing doesn’t always yield good results. In the case of marijuana, making it so people have access to a drug that relieves pain while also refraining from locking up non-criminals is a win-win. The downfalls are already knowable, and can be countered with social pressure much like the consumption of alcohol. Like the end of World War II, there isn’t much cause for worry. Basically, protect people’s property and let the chips fall where they may. That’s the only thing government should do for the nascent weed industry.