So I’m revisiting some thoughts from a much earlier entry, and hoping to expand upon the same. Marijuana legalization is back in the news of late, and in a surprisingly big way. I say this because lets face it, pot legalization can often times seem a bit like yesterday’s crusade. The cause of clumsily aging hippies, Gen-X’ers, and undergrads who aren’t good at finding oppressed peoples on a map. These are stereotypes obviously, the movement wouldn’t have the longevity it clearly possesses without a diverse platform of support. Still though, in a world where 9/11 happened closer to the fall of the Soviet Union than to today the periodic flaring of the marijuana debate can almost seem passé. With that in mind the sudden leaps made towards broader legalization kind of boggle the public consciousness. The notion has been such a pipe dream (pun only partially intended) for such a long time that I’m beginning to realize the common tropes of the debate aren’t ultimately that well adapted for the reality of the agenda they promote. At least in terms of the expectations of its grassroots (I’m on a roll) proponents.
Let me explain. As we seem to grow ever closer to an achievable legalization within our lifetime, questions are arising as to what the actual real world implications of that legalization are. Questions that require real thought and real answers. Increasingly those answers appear to be rather different from what many proponents likely imagined. Legalization is ultimately going to redefine our relationship with marijuana, and paradoxically in so doing herald the final death of the “pot culture” which originally birthed the legalization movement. This isn’t meant to be a comparison of the pros and cons of legalization. That’s a discussion far too detailed for this corner of my internet, and frankly one that is already playing out on a broader stage. Rather what I’d like to do is examine some predictions of mine regarding unintended collateral of pot legalization and what that means for the common philosophies surrounding the movement.
Let’s start with taxation and regulation. These are both longstanding elements of the marijuana debate, and despite both being essential to legalization and frankly being net goods I don’t think that their implications have been well thought through by many of those that advocate it. The utopian vision of many pot-partisans, independent farmers and entrepreneurs selling their wares at roadside stands and local markets is ultimately incompatible with legalization. The USDA, the FDA, the IRS, and even the Surgeon General are necessarily going to have a large role in the new policy regime. Growers may not have to worry about being busted by the cops, but the taxman is going to create a laundry list of new grievances. The business models best suited to thrive in this environment are more likely than not to have a decidedly corporate character, but we’ll come back to that in a moment. What taxation and regulation also means is vice tariffs and price floors. “Lowest price allowed by law” is signage all of us are familiar with, and that price is never going to be low enough for many pot supporters, despite the legalization rhetoric.
Further, independent sellers are unlikely to remain the primary point of service for marijuana transactions. While there will likely always be a space for dispensaries, just as there are for tobacconists and liquor stores, this product is inexorably going to move into the retail sector alongside other legal recreational substances. What this means is branding, commercialization, and industrialization. The egalitarian aesthetic so long associated with marijuana culture is going to quickly give way to mercenary sensibilities and classism. Going back to our discussion of business models, a corporate framework is inevitably going to prevail in the legal marijuana sector, pushing out the dispersed production and distribution infrastructure idealized by many adherents. What this means in frank terms is the rise of the American cartel, albeit in a legitimate economic space. Corollary to this is the changing role for activists that legalization creates, in that there is a very fine line between an activist and a lobbyist. Corporate lobbying is antithetical to the ethos of many pot pundits, but more and more marijuana policy interests are going to move from one side of the line to the other. Moreover, as the battle lines over the shape and extent of regulation are drawn this new breed of marijuana lobbyists is likely going to find their closest political ally in the tobacco lobby. How’s that going to look on the PR?
The branding I mentioned is another unintended consequence with significant implications for the culture of marijuana use. With branding comes increased competition for a base of customers and a balkanization of tastes. There’s going to be cheap pot, expensive pot, pretentious pot, ironic pot, blue collar pot, college pot, and everything in between. Pot snobs will be a thing, along with an underclass smoking the marijuana equivalent of cowboy-killers. With this the iconography of marijuana culture is going to change as well. We’ve all seen the pot-leaf design plastered over posters and shirts on every college campus. The designs are typically meant to connote a combination of rebellion and revolution; a disregard for societal mores and the advocacy for a counterculture. What does that mean in a post-legal world though? Well, the connotations do shift a bit. Stripped of its radical status the fetishism of marijuana becomes a bit more like wearing a t-shirt for Monster energy drink, or Budweiser, or Marlboro. That you bought from the Gap. The visual shorthand that has surrounded pot culture for almost a half century will be sublimated by legalization and over time will simply lose its anti-establishment associations.
This is not to say that I am in any way anti-legalization, or that I think its consequences will not ultimately benefit society. What I am contending is that its consequences may be more far-reaching than we imagined, at least as far as our interactions with marijuana are concerned. The world envisioned by many proponents of legalization is not the world I think they’re going to get, and while I don’t think it is necessarily a “bad” world, I don’t think that it will end up being a world they wanted…