By Iain Espey
When it comes to politics, you can always count on your Uber driver for a considered perspective. That proved true recently when a thumb-shaped man named Mike burst my bubble on Prop 64. He had the fear of God in him when he told me marijuana legalization would be the beginning of the end. It’s not that Mike opposed cannabis; with one hand still on the steering wheel, he proudly fished his medical card out of the glove box for me to examine. Nonetheless, Mike had suspicions about where all this recreational marijuana business is headed, and he’s not all wrong.
Admittedly, the case for legal weed isn’t hard to make these days. The federal government still views marijuana as having no medical value and a high potential for abuse, though according to a recent Freedom of Information Act request filed by Vice News, the FDA also recognizes that marijuana is not a gateway drug, does not permanently lower the IQ of adult users, exhibits “no positive association…[with] lung cancer,” and shows no “causative link” to the development of mental health issues. In Colorado, where recreational cannabis has been implemented most successfully, some of the benefits of legal weed are already clear. According to the state’s Department of Revenue, marijuana taxes, licenses, and fees brought in more than $85 million in 2015 alone, $21 million of which went to a fund supporting public schools. The so-called Green Rush succeeded in bringing jobs and investment to Colorado, which has had one of the highest rates of jobs added of all the states since the Great Recession. Removing criminal penalties has also saved the state between $12 and $40 million per year, according to the Colorado Center on Law and Policy. What does that really look like? Thousands of lives – especially those of young blacks and Latinos – that won’t be forever weighed down by a low-level possession charge. There’s obviously a lot to like about legalization, so why the apprehension, Mike?
It may come as a surprise to the .Mic/NowThis crowd, but recreational weed is not an unequivocal win. Although anyone worried about society’s moral decline is probably living in the 19th century, concerns about the accessibility of marijuana to children, high potency edibles and concentrates, and increased traffic fatalities due to stoned driving should not be dismissed out of hand. Moreover, like any form of agriculture, marijuana cultivation is not without its environmental impact. If you believe the good folks over at Breitbart and their “researchers,” each marijuana plant uses an estimated six gallons of water per day, though if you’ve ever seen a marijuana plant or stopped to consider just how much six gallons is, you may rightly question that number. But if legalization does pass, growers will have to increase production to meet rising demand, which could further strain our already drought-strapped state’s remaining water resources. Finally, opponents of Prop 64 have also raised the very real concern that cannabis could go the way of Big Tobacco, with the market controlled by a few massive firms providing a cheap, abundant, low-quality product. To my lights, this is by far the most ominous criticism.
Prop 64 does provide a five-year “head-start” for established medical growers before new producers will be allowed to enter the market. At the same time, half of the $18 million in funding for the campaign was provided by Silicon Valley don Sean Parker “and affiliates.” You can bet that’s not out of the goodness of their hearts. Legalization is just another high-value, long-term investment for these guys, since they’re the ones who will be whipping out the capital for every new cannabis operation for the foreseeable future. All the same, the fact that professional investors’ and shady corporate types’ positioning themselves to make a killing off legalization isn’t necessarily a compelling reason to oppose Prop 64. When a market opens up, someone always gets rich. The measure is ultimately one aimed at establishing and regulating a new industry; its supporters may believe in people’s fundamental right to smoke weed if they want to (or not, if they don’t!), but make no mistake, that’s not the motivation behind Prop 64.
Consumers will soon face a choice, and in this regard, our record is not so good. We lament the loss of mom-and-pop shops across the country, but fail to realize that Walmart and McDonald’s were not foisted upon us. We have no one to blame for the existence of these culturally empty institutions but ourselves. The choices we make as consumers shape the marketplace, and in turn, the products available to us reflect our underlying desires and values. Maybe we can learn a lesson from the trend in organic and locally sourced foods. When we buy our certified organic flax seed granola at the local Whole Foods, we pay a significant premium because we believe the product we’re getting supports a socially and environmentally conscious model of production that we see as more ethical. We feel more satisfied not just with our outcome – since we likely feel the product is of higher quality too – but also with our overall experience of a transaction in the marketplace. If these values serve as the model for the recreational marijuana industry, legalization stands to benefit all Californians, but if we remain complacent as consumers we may be doomed to a future from which not even cannabis can save us.
Contact Iain Espey at iespey ‘at’ stanford.edu.