Marijuana Legalization and Big Cannabis

As support for legalization of marijuana slowly increases, Keith Humphreys warns advocates that legalization may not turn out the way they imagine. Instead, he says, it would create an industry much like any other:

For millions of Americans, the word "marijuana" is hard-wired to the part of their brain that divides the human population into those who went to Woodstock and those who went to Viet Nam. The peculiar result is a largely left-wing movement fighting hard (alongside some corporate billionaires) to create a multinational corporation and a largely conservative movement fighting to stop the advance of capitalism and the private sector. Some people on both sides mis-imagine a legalized marijuana industry made up of bucolic co-op farms run by hippies in tie dye t-shirts, selling pot at the lowest possible profit to friendly independent business folk in the towns who set aside 10% of their profits to save the whales. This image is pleasant to some and revolting to others, but that’s as may be because it’s not what would happen under legalization.

This will be tough for baby boomers to hear, but the current generation of Americans doesn't know Woodstock from chicken stock and understands the Viet Nam War about as much as they do military action in the Crimea. If the U.S. legalized marijuana today, those now fading cultural meanings would not rule the day, capitalism would. Cannabis would seen as a product to be marketed and sold just as is tobacco. People in the marijuana industry would wear suits, work in offices, donate to the Club for Growth and work with the tobacco industry to lobby against clean air restrictions. The plant would be grown on big corporate farms, perhaps supported with unneeded federal subsidies and occasionally marred by scandals regarding exploitation of undocumented immigrant farm workers. The liberal grandchildren of legalization advocates will grumble about the soulless marijuana corporations and the conservative grandchildren of anti-legalization activists will play golf at the country club with marijuana inc. executives, toast George Soros at the 19th hole afterwards and discuss how they can get the damn liberals in Congress to stop blocking capital gains tax cuts.

He's right on the economics, but there's an implication here that the cultural meaning of the drug will change too, and I think that's not completely true. Right now, what we have in some places is a quasi-legal industry. There are 16 states, plus D.C., that have some kind of law on the books allowing medical marijuana. The laws generally include some provision allowing patients to grow a small amount for personal use, or establishing nonprofits to supply dispensaries. But all this runs afoul of federal law, and that precludes any sort of large-scale production. Everyone knows that if you set up an enormous growing operation, the federal government would raid your farm and arrest you, even if you were complying with your state's laws. That means that for the moment, growers remain, at least in significant part, the artisinal, tie-dye-clad hippies Keith references.

So let's imagine it was legalized federally, and large-scale growing and sales went corporate. Would the cultural meaning of marijuana immediately change? I doubt it. While it's true that kids today don't know much about Woodstock, that essential division between the cool kids (of various types) and the squares -- and the knowledge of which side pot smokers are on -- is intact. The borders may shift about, but every drug has its own associations of identity, the kind of people you associate it with. Those ideas are embedded very deeply into our culture, and it isn't as though within a few years, pot is going to become something that the business majors all do but the theater majors think is totally lame.

When Big Cannabis is marketing its product, it will take the path of far less resistance: not reversing cultural understandings of the drug but playing on those that already exist. Pot will be sold as a vehicle of youthfulness and rebellion, a (now totally legal!) way you can stick it to The Man and proclaim your individuality. After all, for almost a half-century that's the way they've been marketing almost everything to us, from cars to soft drinks to computers. Why should marijuana be any different?