Regulating Cannabis

In April 2016, I was in New York for an ISSDP meeting on cannabis policy in the Americas. At the end of the first day, I was due to meet up for dinner with Niamh Eastwood and Alex Stevens. I was a little early, so decided to have a drink in the bar of my hotel before setting off for the restaurant. I sat at a stool at the bar and after five minutes became aware of a man taking the stool next to me. He ordered a beer and asked me if I had been at the cannabis conference. I said yes and he inquired what my interest was. I explained I was an academic researcher and then asked him the same question, expecting that he was either an academic or a policy wonk. His reply took me completely by surprise: he was a businessman, attending the meeting to help him decide whether cannabis was an industry worth investing in or not.

This was a revelatory moment for me. I realised two things. First, that the pace and scale of change in the US was far greater than I had appreciated: cannabis was rapidly becoming big business. Second, that cannabis law reform was now as much about commerce and capitalism, as it was about the familiar ‘progressive’ tropes of civil rights and personal freedom. On the flight back to Manchester, I began to hatch an idea for a project, although it would take a couple of years to get off the ground.

One strand of the project was for an archival study of cannabis law reform within the counter-culture in the 1960s, which I worked on for most of 2019 and which eventually led to this paper published earlier this year. Historicising reform was an important foundation for the project. The other strand aimed to produce a global state-of-the-art review of the latest legal and policy developments in the field. This has resulted in a book, Regulating Cannabis, co-authored with Will Floodgate, which finally came out a few days ago. Will led on the preliminary work for the book in the summer of 2018. After a pause, we picked it up together in spring 2019, as we prepared to present our framework and approach at the annual ISSDP conference in Paris in May. The bulk of the book was then written in a fairly intense period between October 2019 and March 2020.

The central thesis of the book is that if we view the ‘cannabis challenge’ through the lens of business regulation, we can see that we have as much to learn from how we have regulated a range of agricultural products as we do from the usual go-to comparisons with alcohol or tobacco. This analytical approach not only provides new insights on familiar issues but also opens up less well explored areas for attention, including the vital question of how to ensure that a legal cannabis industry is based on a model of environmentally sustainable consumption.

Perhaps the book’s most controversial point concerns the politics of cannabis policy. It is usually argued that policy should be based more on science and evidence, rather than politics and ideology. But if we dig down far enough, many of the regulatory decisions about cannabis that policy-makers take have their roots in matters that are inescapably about values. They rest on choices about the type of society we wish to live in and the things that we want to prioritise. Pretending we can de-politicise cannabis law and policy is misguided. We must embrace the challenge of engaging more seriously and transparently with the politics of cannabis control. We hope that the book points to some ways forward for doing exactly that.


About Toby Seddon

Professor of Social Science at UCL. Interested in new ideas and thinking about drug policy.
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3 Responses to Regulating Cannabis

  1. That’s funny. You should have come in 1996, when that was first publicly obvious. I knew one guy who took $4,000 cash off the top, every day, when he closed his dispensary, before he paid his bills. That was his “rainy day” money. He still had “profits” after paying the bills with the rest.

    He owned five stores. Do the math for a year. The local police did not care because marijuana does not cause the problems that bother local police. The biggest problems around all the thousands of such shops since 1996 are parking and litter around poorly run shops. Well-run shops send out employees to take care of that stuff so they don’t bother the neighbors. If they don’t bother the neighbors, nobody really cares.

    His biggest worry was not the cops. His biggest worry was that his girlfriend would suddenly decide that living by herself with several suitcases full of cash was better than living with him.

    Los Angeles has reported about 1,000 completely unlicensed and unregulated marijuana stores for the last 20 years. The only rules are the ones made by the store managers. Other than litter and parking, nothing much changed.

    I submit one obvious fact about marijuana regulation — We could completely delete every reference to marijuana in the law books and we still wouldn’t have any major problems. Any “marijuana problem” is already covered by some other law, and/or is not properly solved by punishment.

    Furthermore, it would be better than any plan including punishment.

    How do we know? California proved it in the 20 years before you arrived. That’s why you see what you see now.

  2. In early 1997, I walked into a marijuana store in Oakland. There were at least 50 feet of glass cases displaying literally hundreds of different varieties of weed and its various extracts. Behind the counter, there were at least 5,000 marijuana plant clones on sale. I walked out onto the balcony and walked through a literal forest of dozens and dozens of four-foot marijuana plants in pots, all ready for sale.

    This was in an office building in downtown Oakland, a few blocks from City Hall. The balcony was in full view of the buildings around it, so there was no attempt to hide it. There were other stores in the area like it. There were no licensing or regulations on that sort of thing at all so, naturally, none of them had any rules other than what the manager said. The managers usually required a doctor’s recommendation. I have never heard of anyone who had $50 who was rejected for a recommendation.

    So, bottom line, it was open to any individual who wanted to smoke weed, and anyone who wanted to run a store. Not even any real paperwork to fill out. Get your recommendation, rent the storefront and go.

    So what were the results?
    The results were nothing less than amazing. Prior to the mj stores, that area of Oakland required a bulletproof vest and armed guards to walk around. It was full of abandoned buildings and was a well-known civic wreck.

    The completely unregulated marijuana stores improved the area, cleaned it up, and made it a tourist attraction — Oaksterdam. You could safely walk the streets any time, day or night, because the stores provided security. The results were so significant that the Oakland City Council eventually entered into a venture with them to make it a citywide project.

    They were well on their way to achieve something really significant, when the Feds shut them down. See the case of Ed Rosenthal.

    That’s only part of what happened before you arrived. The idea of taxing it as an argument for reform didn’t happen until 2007.

  3. “But if we dig down far enough, many of the regulatory decisions about cannabis that policy-makers take have their roots in matters that are inescapably about values. ”

    Yes, that is EXACTLY the problem. Marijuana was originally outlawed in the US because “All Mexicans are crazy and marijuana is what makes them crazy.” Marijuana laws became standard around the world because one man who was clearly a racist wanted to protect and expand his empire.

    Those kinds of values. When did the values change to something more rational and noble? Find that point in history for me. Thanks.

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