The idea that ending marijuana prohibition will lead to an all powerful marijuana industry political lobby is a misguided concern I hear repeated often from prohibitionists and even some nominally supportive of reform. Mark Kleiman, who is advising Washington State on their marijuana regulations, raise the worry again in Washington Monthly.
The systems being put into place in Washington and Colorado roughly resemble those imposed on alcohol after Prohibition ended in 1933. A set of competitive commercial enterprises produce the pot, and a set of competitive commercial enterprises sell it, under modest regulations: a limited number of licenses, no direct sales to minors, no marketing obviously directed at minors, purity/potency testing and labeling, security rules. 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 (see Tim Heffernan, “Last Call”).
The same will likely happen with cannabis. 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.
It is also easy for me to imagine myself winning the lottery, but there is a big gap between the limits of our imagination and what is likely to happen.
The legal marijuana industry is unlikely to ever develop serious political muscle, because it doesn’t have much popular support and is unlikely to be a very big market.
In Colorado, where recreational marijuana is now legal and loose medical marijuana rules made it very easy for adults to use it for years prior to that, only 10 percent of voters used it at least once in the last month. It is safe to assume only a fraction of that 10 percent uses marijuana with significant regularity. That means marijuana is relatively speaking a very small market with few highly loyal consumers.
By comparison 66 percent of Americans adults drink alcohol. That is a huge market and base of supportive consumers. That is what gives alcohol both its political and financial power. Politicians tend to be supportive of pro-alcohol reforms because most politicians like to drink. No one really thinks legal marijuana will get to this level of use or widespread cultural embrace.
A slightly better example would be cigarettes. The CDC concludes 18.1 percent of American adults regularly smoke cigarettes. That is still a significantly larger market and set of regular customers than the legal marijuana market is ever likely to achieve, yet the cigarette lobby hasn’t been winning many battles. Over the past two decades the tobacco industry has clearly been losing the fight against regulation, incurring a wave of tax increases and new restrictions.
It is clear from the data that while the country has turned anti-prohibition it hasn’t turned pro-pot. Most voters want legal marijuana to be strongly regulated. Given how relatively small the legal marijuana costumer base is going to be it is simply not responsible to suspect a marijuana business lobby will ever have significant political sway.
Jon Walker is the author of After Legalization: Understanding the future of marijuana policy
Photo by eggrole under Creative Commons license