Colorado, Washington, and now Oregon and Alaska are more or less following the model for legalizing and regulating a drug that was set out after alcohol prohibition ended. The initiative that passed in Washington, D.C., yesterday is a little different.
Over at Slate, Mark Kleiman notes that the law, as written, suggests something like a "grow and give" system, in which residents are permitted to cultivate, consume, and gift the drug, but the current ban on money changing hands between growers and consumers remains in place. The Daily Beast chimes in in favor as well, decrying the "green rush" that has occurred in other states and noting that "as we've seen with the alcohol industry, the private profit-driven market of a drug can be dangerous."
(The D.C. City Council is already working on a more conventional system, which would permit the licensing of growers and distributors, but the future is hazy.)
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul's right: Three cheers for the laboratories of democracy and all that. But "grow and give" is not going to work. And it's not going to work for reasons succinctly described right in the middle of that Slate article about how well it's going to work:
It wouldn't generate any tax revenue, or offer consumers the same convenience or product variety as a commercial system, and of course policing the boundary between "giving" and "selling" would be virtually impossible. But it might be a big improvement on the current prohibition. Eliminating organized marketing would likely lead to a much smaller increase—if any—in cannabis abuse than we would expect if we sell pot the way we now sell beer.
That "of course" is a really big deal. Contained in that "of course" is all the violence and seediness of black markets, abuse of search powers by the police, the large scale incarceration of low-level drug offenders, and much, much more. "Grow and give" would be an improvement on total prohibition, but it would also be a step backward, a failure to learn from the lessons of the experiments in Colorado and Washington State.
Kleiman quite reasonably asks: "Are we really satisfied with the results of the current alcohol system?" Reason's answer has long been clear: Nope!
But the addiction, safety, and health costs associated with alcohol use aren't caused by the fact that people can legally buy and sell the stuff. Money changing hands for a bottle of clearly labeled, cleanly manufactured gin in a well-lit store with regular hours is by far the most wholesome part of the whole life-cycle of booze.
By taking the money out of legal weed in D.C., the city will not somehow elevate the exchange of marijuana to a higher, more altruistic plane. Instead, it will force users and providers to continue to operate outside the law and live with dangerous uncertainty about what they're buying, who they're buying it from, and what happens if the deal goes bad.