How Would Legalizing Marijuana Change American Culture?

Keith Humphreys writes about how the legalization of marijuana might impact Americans' cultural relationship with the drug:

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.

Paul Waldman responds:

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?

The prospect of a full-fledged, commercialized marijuana industry with the web of influence that could come with it is one of the reasons I prefer decriminalization to full legalization -- and I certainly don't think that anyone using marijuana for medical reasons should be subject to legal sanction.

But I disagree with Waldman that our cultural understanding of marijuana would not change. We already have something of a prior example with alcohol and prohibition. The Temperance movement was mostly made up of Protestant denominations, whose opposition to alcohol consumption was laden with racist, anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant stereotypes. A hundred years later, alcohol consumption is no longer associated with unruly Negroes and their white ethnic enablers. Alcohol is entirely respectable, even as the industry still exploits a sense of youthful rebellion still associated with consumption. The president can hold a "beer summit." The former commander of the Joint Special Operations Command drinks Bud Light Lime. 

While the idea of a future president lighting up a j while hammering a budget deal is somewhat amusing, it doesn't really alleviate all of my other concerns about the commercialization of marijuana. But cultural change associated with the drug is inevitable -- after all, it's not even legal yet, and our views of marijuana and who consumes it have already changed.

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