There is some good news amid the torrent of police shootings, terrorist attacks a little too close to home for comfort, travails of the middle class and the blatherings of a dysfunctional political establishment: The embrace of gay rights and abolition of draconian marijuana laws have accelerated at breathtaking speed in a society in which positive change comes with a painful slowness, if at all.
These seismic shifts have a common denominator: They make sense.
A majority of Americans endorse gay rights, including support of same sex marriage, and are in favor of decriminalization, if not outright legalization, of marijuana because they know that there is nothing inherently wrong with homosexuality or smoking marijuana despite religious and legal prohibitions, and in the case of pot, penalties for even simple possession that do not begin to fit the “crime” that are a result of decades of federal government-sponsored misinformation, scare tactics and fear mongering.
There also is a huge difference in these seismic shifts: Money.
While it is the right thing to do, no one is going to make a buck because gays are afforded the same legal rights as straights, while a growing number of state and local governments, as well as entrepreneurs looking for the next big thing, see financial windfalls in licensing and taxing marijuana cultivation and sales, and permitting the sale of food and beverages with pot as an ingredient.
An astounding (for this old head, anyway) 23 states and the District of Columbia have at least decriminalized marijuana possession. Colorado, Oregon and Washington state have legalized pot and licensed its sale outright, nine states have both medical and decriminalization laws, eight states have medical laws, and four states — including usually neolithic Alabama — have decriminalization laws. And more are about to join the crowd. Alaska, Arizona, California, New Hampshire and Nevada are on the short list of the next states to jump on the bandwagon.
Count Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper among the converts.
Hickenlooper, 63, grew up in suburban Philadelphia in the 1960s and was bombarded from an early age with the familiar smorgasbord of government-pedaled lies: Marijuana makes people crazy. It turns them into sociopaths, even murderers. And it is a gateway to the harder stuff like cocaine and heroin. While Hickenlooper would never admit as much, it is likely he smoked or at least tried pot at the Main Line boy’s school he attended or later at Wesleyan University. This was about the time a future president by the name of Bill Clinton was smoking but famously not inhaling.
And it is just as likely that none of the classmates of Hickenlooper and Clinton became poster kids for the propagandistic evils of the illegal weed while their elders were consuming so-called legal drugs, including pain- and reality-killing alcohol and pills. The negative impact of their use and too often their abuse — addiction, drunk driving, broken families, domestic abuse and divorce — far outweighed the consequences of smoking the occasional joint and getting the midnight munchies.
Hickenlooper worked in Colorado as a geologist in the early 1980s and stayed. He eventually got into politics and started a microbrewery in a trendy Denver neighborhood. As his statewide profile grew, he came out against nascent efforts to soften the state’s tough marijuana laws and opposed Amendment 64, the successful 2012 ballot measure legalizing cannabis for adults and allowing commercial cultivation, manufacture, and sale, as well as limited home cultivation, effectively regulating pot in a manner similar to alcohol.
Today Hickenlooper is a changed man and concedes that the consequences of letting people grow, sell, and consume pot without risking arrest have not been as bad as he feared.
“It seems like the people that were smoking before are mainly the people that are smoking now,” the governor says. “If that’s the case, what that means is that we’re not going to have more drugged driving, or driving while high. We’re not going to have some of those problems. But we are going to have a system where we’re actually regulating and taxing something, and keeping that money in the state of Colorado, and we’re not supporting a corrupt system of gangsters.”
Legalization, licensing and taxing — allowing anyone 21 or older to walk into a store and walk out with a bag of buds, a vapor pen loaded with cannabis oil, or a marijuana-infused snack — has been a financial windfall for Colorado. A record $36.5 million flowed into state coffers in November 2014, the most recent month for which data are available, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue, which projects out to $438 million a year.
Meanwhile, legalized marijuana has taken the investing world by storm as investors have bought into so-called marijuana stocks with enthusiasm, causing share prices to skyrocket. According to Arcview Market Research, the industry generated $1.53 billion in revenues in 2013 and was expected to jump to $2.5 billion in 2014– a robust 40 percent growth rate year over year — primarily because of the widespread and growing decriminalization of medical marijuana.
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’s legendary praise for states as the “laboratories of democracy” has gotten a vigorous workout as state after state has decided that beyond potential revenue windfalls, a ride on the bandwagon is preferable to continue to clog its court systems and prisons with penny-ante marijuana cases.
Indeed, the bandwagon had to get rolling somewhere, and even some politicians who oppose legalization have been comforted by the fact the federal government isn’t drivingit. Lest investors think that the sky’s the limit, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency is still occasionally raiding marijuana dispensaries in states that have decriminalized such businesses, and the incoming Congress is decidedly more conservative than its predecessors in terms of potentially legalizing marijuana at the federal level.
But for the most part, the Justice Department has allowed the bandwagon to keep rolling.
Last August, the deputy attorney general issued a formal — though nonbinding — assurance that the feds would take a mostly hands-off approach as long as state governments pursue “strong and effective” regulation to prevent activities such as distribution to minors, dealing by gangs and cartels, dealing other drugs, selling across state lines, and weapons possession. Justice also has been quietly working with the Treasury Department to reinterpret banking laws to allow state-licensed pot businesses to have checking accounts and take credit cards, thereby avoiding the dangers inherent in cash-only businesses.
Washington Monthly writer Mark Kleiman has noted that the systems being put into place in Colorado, Oregon and Washington roughly resemble those imposed on alcohol after Prohibition ended in 1933. That is, competitive commercial enterprises produce the marijuana and competitive commercial enterprises sell it.
The post-Prohibition restrictions on alcohol worked reasonably well for a while, but have been substantially undermined over the years as the beer and liquor industries consolidated and used their economies of scale to lower production costs and their lobbying muscle to loosen regulations and keep taxes low.
“The same will likely happen with cannabis,” Kleiman warns. “As more and more states begin to legalize marijuana over the next few years, the cannabis industry will begin to get richer — and that means it will start to wield considerably more political power, not only over the states but over national policy, too.
“That’s how we could get locked into a bad system in which the primary downside of legalizing pot — increased drug abuse, especially by minors — will be greater than it needs to be, and the benefits, including tax revenues, smaller than they could be. It’s easy to imagine the cannabis equivalent of an Anheuser-Busch InBev peddling low-cost, high-octane cannabis in Super Bowl commercials. We can do better than that, but only if Congress takes action — and soon.”
I won’t hold my breath waiting for Congress to do much of anything, and I happen to inhale.
In fact, as someone who was introduced to the benign delights of the evil weed in the year that apocalyptic anti-marijuana sign appeared in a Buffalo store window (as in nearly 50 years ago, man) the trend toward legalization is welcome but still rankles this old head because of the tiresome tendency of capitalism — whether in the form of states taxing a recreational drug that hurts no one to cannabis entrepreneurs selling to folks like me who just want to chill on their own terms — to exploit people.
My not so secret hope is that because marijuana is so damned cheap and easy to grow (it’s not nicknamed “weed” for nothing), it will get still cheaper and still easier to grow because of the legalization bandwagon, state revenue agents and Anheuser-Busch InBev be damned.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on January 22, 2015, on Kiko’s House, a website featuring commentary by journalist and author, Shaun Mullen. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Mullen.