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The sober way to legalize marijuana

Mary Becker, 21, of Boise, Idaho exhales after taking a hit of hash oil at during 420Fest at the Luxe Nightclub in Seattle, Washington April
Mary Becker, 21, of Boise, Idaho exhales after taking a hit of hash oil at during 420Fest at the Luxe Nightclub in Seattle, Washington April

By Reihan Salam

As a general rule, Americans don't give much thought to Uruguay, a small South American republic with a population of 3.3 million. But Uruguay has embarked on a new experiment with marijuana legalization that merits close attention. As Ken Parks of the Wall Street Journal reported late last month, new Uruguayan legislation will allow individuals to grow as much as 480 grams of marijuana for personal consumption, and marijuana cooperatives with no more than 45 members will be permitted to grow just over two plants per member. The government will also allow for limited commercial production, but Uruguayan lawmakers have made it clear that they don't want a domestic marijuana market dominated by large for-profit firms.

Might the United States follow in Uruguay's footsteps? Marijuana legalization seems inevitable—but we'd be wise to follow Uruguay's lead and carefully regulate the kinds of legal marijuana operations that will follow.

Marijuana advocates have successfully pressed for the legalization of the medicinal use of marijuana in 20 states and the District of Columbia since 1996, when California voters passed Proposition 215. And efforts to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, as in Uruguay's new legislation, are gaining ground. In November, three states — Colorado, Oregon, and Washington — had marijuana legalization initiatives on the ballot, two of which passed. Though Oregon voters chose not to legalize marijuana last fall, they will likely get another chance to do so in 2014. Alaska and Arizona could be the next states to follow suit.

Support for marijuana legalization isn't just growing in libertarian-minded western states. In April, the Pew Research Center found that a narrow 52 percent majority of Americans support marijuana legalization. This represents an impressive increase since 2002, when only 32 percent supported legalization. Support among adults born after 1981 has reached 65 percent, and as this cohort comes to represent a larger share of the electorate, it is easy to imagine that the pressure to legalize marijuana will grow. And while there remains a partisan divide over marijuana legalization, with fewer Republicans in favor of legalization (37 percent) than Democrats (59 percent), a majority of Republicans (57 percent) and Democrats (59 percent) believe that the federal government should not enforce federal marijuana laws in states that permit its use.

But the deeper shift is not so much political as cultural. Pew has found that the stigma against marijuana use is quickly evaporating. In 2006, 50 percent of Americans maintained that smoking marijuana was "morally wrong," a share that has fallen to 32 percent as of 2013. Not surprisingly, marijuana use has increased as the stigma against it has faded. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime reports that the annual prevalence of cannabis use has increased from 10 percent of the general population (persons 15-64 years of age) in 2007 to 14.1 percent in 2010. By way of comparison, the annual prevalence of cannabis use is less than half as high in Uruguay. Marijuana is no longer seen as a drug for people on society's fringes, or the exclusive preserve of hippies and hip-hop devotees. It is used by an impressively wide range of Americans, many of whom use it for banal purposes like reducing stress.

For better or for worse, voters are far more likely to favor marijuana legalization if they think of marijuana users as "people like us" and not "people like them." So I'd guess that marijuana legalization in some form is all but inevitable. The question is what form it will take. Will we see a marijuana industry akin to the alcohol or tobacco industries, or will we try to keep marijuana production small-scale?

One common objection to marijuana legalization is that it represents a violation of American treaty obligations. Back in March, the International Narcotics Control Board, an independent agency that monitors drug control policies across countries, raised concerns about the new marijuana legalization initiatives in Washington and Colorado, which it sees as being in violation of United Nations drug control conventions. Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA who is widely regarded as one of America's leading experts on the regulation of narcotic drugs, suggests that while international drug control treaties limit the scope of federal efforts to tax and regulate marijuana, state governments have considerable leeway. Kleiman and his consulting firm, BOTEC Analysis Corporation, are helping Washington state implement its new marijuana regulations, and one assumes that other states will learn from Washington's experience.

My gut tells me that while marijuana legalization has the potential to be a good thing, insofar as it reduces the number of Americans who are habitual lawbreakers, we need to think hard about the kind of marijuana market that will best serve our interests. In an ideal world, the current enthusiasm for marijuana legalization would give us an opportunity to rethink how we regulate all drugs, including alcohol, a drug that does more damage in the United States than any other. Kleiman often argues that while marijuana is in many respects less harmful than alcohol, it does pose public health concerns, and that the large-scale commercialization of marijuana could greatly increase its use and abuse. Rather than take a laissez-faire approach, in which marijuana will be cultivated at industrial scale and marketers will be free to actively encourage and even glamorize heavy use, we should allow people to grow their own marijuana, as individuals or in small clubs, and allow at most very limited commercial production, if any. In other words, let's legalize marijuana, but let's be very sober and sensible about it.

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