Sunday, March 8

Questionable ethics of America's legal marijuana sales model

Beau Kilmer, the co-director of RAND Corporation's Drug Policy Research Center, nailed it in an editorial published in the New York Times in January 2014:
Legalizing the large-scale commercial production, distribution and sale of marijuana, Colorado and Washington states have created an unprecedented situation. Contrary to many people’s assumptions, not even the Netherlands has gone this far. ...  Instead of starting with an approach that lent itself more easily to public health protections, voters in Colorado and Washington jumped right to a market model similar to alcohol.
For some strange reason American marijuana legalization advocates don't like to talk about Portugal, even though the country decriminalized marijuana more than a decade ago.  Maybe the reluctance has to do with the fact that the country never actually legalized marijuana use. Instead, the government treats marijuana use, and the use of other banned chemical substances, as a disease.

So while Portuguese citizens can still be arrested for use of the banned substances, they aren't referred to the criminal justice system. Each person's case is studied by a panel of legal experts, psychologists, and social workers. Then a treatment program tailored to the individual is developed.

In this way the country halved drug addiction in the population within the space of a decade. 

Of course Portugal is a tiny country with a tiny population -- little more than a million people -- whereas just one small state in the USA, Delaware, has a population size that approaches Portugal's.  This means the United States has a drug addiction problem that dwarfs Portugal's. Just the number of documented heroin addicts in the USA is more than the entire population of Portugal.
Yet there's no question that Portugal took a public health approach to dealing with substance abuse and that it's paid off.  And they did it while decriminalizing use of the substances -- a vaunted goal of Americans who advocate marijuana legalization at the state and federal levels of government.

Whatever public health programs the marijuana-licensing American states have adopted to deal with addiction to marijuana are ad hoc affairs, tacked on after marijuana became legalized in the states -- after marijuana became legally available through a large number of outlets, after Colorado and Washington states officially acknowledged that marijuana was addictive for a large number of users.

And these states jumped straight to a marijuana retail distribution model that didn't actually occur with alcohol until fairly recently in the USA, which was to make marijuana available through many sales outlets.  I think by about 2012 there were more "medical" marijuana dispensaries in Denver, the capital city of Colorado, than Starbucks coffee shops.

But looking at the alcohol sales model in the USA, for decades after alcohol prohibition ended alcohol was only available in special sales outlets.  Today in the USA beer and wine can be bought at convenience and grocery stores and 'big box' retail stores that sell groceries.  Yet American law enforcement officials trace the rise in teenage alcohol abuse to the product's wide availability and see marijuana use among young people following the same trajectory.

So if the rationale for legalizing marijuana in the USA is chiefly compassion, the people who've translated this impulse into a business model have had a strange way of helping those Americans who are most vulnerable to the downsides of using mind-altering drugs.

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