Decriminalizing Cannabis Without Regulation Is Irresponsible

When the House of Representatives passed HR 3617, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungment (MORE) Act on April 1 (1), its critics noted the date was April Fools’ Day. But the bill’s foolishness was not in its intent but in its failure to take full responsibility for the consequences of its action.

In simple terms, HR 3617 decriminalizes marijuana, stating: “Specifically, it removes marijuana from the list of scheduled substances under the Controlled Substances Act and eliminates criminal penalties for an individual who manufactures, distributes, or possesses marijuana.”

Senator Cory Booker passionately explained why this is a good thing in his Wall Street Journal opinion piece, “Legalize it: Why Cannabis Reform Is a Civil Rights Issue.”(2) He calls out America’s war on drugs (and on our family and neighbors who use drugs) for the failure it was and seeks to redress harms done to minority communities disproportionately arrested and imprisoned under the biased implementation of its laws. (See my previous post, “Sen. Booker Calls Cannabis Legalization a Civil Rights Issue.”)

HR 3617 would impose a federal excise tax on cannabis and establish a reparative trust fund for individuals and businesses in communities impacted by the war on drugs, but it would leave public health protection to individual states.

Unfortunately, relying on states as laboratories of democracy to regulate the cannabis industry has failed miserably. Their failure often stems from emphasizing the creation of a healthy cannabis industry to assure increasing tax revenue. It is not the fault of legalization per se as much as it is a failure to exercise adequate regulatory control over an industry capable of doing harm to customers who overuse its products, and especially to underage users.

The need for restorative justice

For readers who are nervous about legalizing cannabis, I have a few points to consider.

  1. A large cannabis industry already exists in every state, whether legal or not.
  2. The illegal portion of this industry cannot be regulated or taxed.
  3. Most people have unlimited access to cannabis, even in states where it is illegal.
  4. In all states, access to treatment for cannabis-induced problems is very limited, especially for adolescents, who are most at risk of harm.

Based on the above realities (1), cannabis policy reform should provide funds to mitigate the damage done by both the war on drugs and the impacts of cannabis use on vulnerable individuals. Restorative justice should apply to both those who have been discriminated against by biased application of enforcement and to consumers who are currently having their lives disrupted by easy access to cannabis.

No system regulating cannabis will be perfect. But the system of keeping cannabis illegal and punishing those who use it did not work. As society lost the will to control use by arresting and incarcerating nonviolent citizens who merely like getting high with cannabis rather than alcohol, some form of legalization became the only rational alternative.

Big Marijuana and the difficulty of regulating cannabis

I have had the opportunity to observe Big Marijuana’s growth and the difficulty of regulating this industry in California, the largest producer of cannabis, where the legal industry is still dwarfed by illegal sales. As a result, legislators are in danger of bowing to the legal industry’s efforts to reduce, or even eliminate, the excise tax on cannabis.

In addition, efforts to control the sale of very high THC concentration products (eg, vaping cartridges) meet resistance from industry and politicians alike. Even flavored products undoubtedly attractive to youth (eg, gummy-bear and strawberry-flavored vaping cartridges) are permitted even while flavored tobacco products are not. Warning labels on products are difficult to read and are not required on advertisements.

Efforts to persuade the state’s Cannabis Advisory Committee to recommend stronger public health regulations are defeated because membership committee is weighted toward industry interests. Although California collects sufficient cannabis tax revenue to build a system of drug education and treatment for all its youth, the funds are diverted to support childcare and preschool programs, still leaving families without affordable treatment for children suffering from the impact of cannabis.

Despite arguments favoring states’ rights, the federal government should set minimum public health regulations for states legalizing cannabis. The moral authority for federal public health regulation standards is created when it takes responsibility for facilitating cannabis legalization. It is completely irresponsible for Congress to consider giving Big Marijuana the freedom to enrich itself without being required to mitigate the damage done by its products. While the majority of those using cannabis do so safely, a minority inevitably suffers harm. Permitting Big Marijuana to slough the cost of this harm onto the public is wrong, and any bill freeing the industry without proper regulatory control is failing in its responsibility to protect public safety.

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