The sober way to legalize marijuana

August 16, 2013

As a general rule, Americans don’t give much thought to Uruguay, a small South American republic with a population of 3.3 million. But Uruguay has embarked on a new experiment with marijuana legalization that merits close attention. As Ken Parks of the Wall Street Journal reported late last month, new Uruguayan legislation will allow individuals to grow as much as 480 grams of marijuana for personal consumption, and marijuana cooperatives with no more than 45 members will be permitted to grow just over two plants per member. The government will also allow for limited commercial production, but Uruguayan lawmakers have made it clear that they don’t want a domestic marijuana market dominated by large for-profit firms.

Might the United States follow in Uruguay’s footsteps? Marijuana legalization seems inevitable—but we’d be wise to follow Uruguay’s lead and carefully regulate the kinds of legal marijuana operations that will follow. 

Marijuana advocates have successfully pressed for the legalization of the medicinal use of marijuana in 20 states and the District of Columbia since 1996, when California voters passed Proposition 215. And efforts to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, as in Uruguay’s new legislation, are gaining ground. In November, three states — Colorado, Oregon, and Washington — had marijuana legalization initiatives on the ballot, two of which passed. Though Oregon voters chose not to legalize marijuana last fall, they will likely get another chance to do so in 2014. Alaska and Arizona could be the next states to follow suit.

Support for marijuana legalization isn’t just growing in libertarian-minded western states. In April, the Pew Research Center found that a narrow 52 percent majority of Americans support marijuana legalization. This represents an impressive increase since 2002, when only 32 percent supported legalization. Support among adults born after 1981 has reached 65 percent, and as this cohort comes to represent a larger share of the electorate, it is easy to imagine that the pressure to legalize marijuana will grow. And while there remains a partisan divide over marijuana legalization, with fewer Republicans in favor of legalization (37 percent) than Democrats (59 percent), a majority of Republicans (57 percent) and Democrats (59 percent) believe that the federal government should not enforce federal marijuana laws in states that permit its use.

But the deeper shift is not so much political as cultural. Pew has found that the stigma against marijuana use is quickly evaporating. In 2006, 50 percent of Americans maintained that smoking marijuana was “morally wrong,” a share that has fallen to 32 percent as of 2013. Not surprisingly, marijuana use has increased as the stigma against it has faded. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime reports that the annual prevalence of cannabis use has increased from 10 percent of the general population (persons 15-64 years of age) in 2007 to 14.1 percent in 2010. By way of comparison, the annual prevalence of cannabis use is less than half as high in Uruguay. Marijuana is no longer seen as a drug for people on society’s fringes, or the exclusive preserve of hippies and hip-hop devotees. It is used by an impressively wide range of Americans, many of whom use it for banal purposes like reducing stress.

For better or for worse, voters are far more likely to favor marijuana legalization if they think of marijuana users as “people like us” and not “people like them.” So I’d guess that marijuana legalization in some form is all but inevitable. The question is what form it will take. Will we see a marijuana industry akin to the alcohol or tobacco industries, or will we try to keep marijuana production small-scale? 

One common objection to marijuana legalization is that it represents a violation of American treaty obligations. Back in March, the International Narcotics Control Board, an independent agency that monitors drug control policies across countries, raised concerns about the new marijuana legalization initiatives in Washington and Colorado, which it sees as being in violation of United Nations drug control conventions. Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA who is widely regarded as one of America’s leading experts on the regulation of narcotic drugs, suggests that while international drug control treaties limit the scope of federal efforts to tax and regulate marijuana, state governments have considerable leeway. Kleiman and his consulting firm, BOTEC Analysis Corporation, are helping Washington state implement its new marijuana regulations, and one assumes that other states will learn from Washington’s experience.

My gut tells me that while marijuana legalization has the potential to be a good thing, insofar as it reduces the number of Americans who are habitual lawbreakers, we need to think hard about the kind of marijuana market that will best serve our interests. In an ideal world, the current enthusiasm for marijuana legalization would give us an opportunity to rethink how we regulate all drugs, including alcohol, a drug that does more damage in the United States than any other. Kleiman often argues that while marijuana is in many respects less harmful than alcohol, it does pose public health concerns, and that the large-scale commercialization of marijuana could greatly increase its use and abuse. Rather than take a laissez-faire approach, in which marijuana will be cultivated at industrial scale and marketers will be free to actively encourage and even glamorize heavy use, we should allow people to grow their own marijuana, as individuals or in small clubs, and allow at most very limited commercial production, if any. In other words, let’s legalize marijuana, but let’s be very sober and sensible about it.

PHOTO: Mary Becker, 21, of Boise, Idaho exhales after taking a hit of hash oil at during 420Fest at the Luxe Nightclub in Seattle, Washington April 20, 2013. REUTERS/Nick Adams (UNITED STATES – Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY) – RTXYU4T


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

A well considered, realistic approach to a “war” that has largely been a “War on the American People”.

We should simply junk all of the obsolete, horrid “treaties” dumped on us by previous generations. Who cares what they promised that we would do? They are dead, and in most cases that is a good thing.

Obligations imposed by the powerful upon the weak are not obligations at all but extortion. That should include the debt of the dead rich.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

“Narcotics police are an enormous, corrupt international bureaucracy … and now fund a coterie of researchers who provide them with ‘scientific support’ … fanatics who distort the legitimate research of others. … The anti-marijuana campaign is a cancerous tissue of lies, undermining law enforcement, aggravating the drug problem, depriving the sick of needed help, and suckering well-intentioned conservatives and countless frightened parents.”
— William F. Buckley

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

The Single Convention Treaty is a red herring. All that needs to be done is to write what amounts to a “Dear John” letter to the UN, just like Bolivia did in 2011. If the UN doesn’t like it they can send a letter saying that they’re very, very angry. Then they can pack up their stuff and move out. But the reality is that the SCT was shoved down the throat of the rest of the world by the U.S. and abrogation of this idiotic, ill advised piece of utter nonsense is more likely to hear countries with civilized governments to breathe a sigh of relief. Russia, China, Iran and countries like those might object but that just demonstrates that the SCT is better being relegated to the ash bin of history.

Posted by Kevin20036 | Report as abusive

If you believe marijuana should be illegal, then please explain how we justify alcohol being legal? What foolishness. This whole subject really makes me wonder about the intelligence of those running the country.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Exactly Right,allow adults to grow their own,as much as they want,regulate and tax all commercial sales.

Posted by PhilDeBowl | Report as abusive

I am undecided on legalization, but I certainly see the harm that big tobacco firms have done. This article is a pretty interesting twist on things.
In any case, ban smoking anything in any sort of public place.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive

If marijuana is not legal by the year 2020, it will never be legal. 2020 is the year that the US said they would release Germany’s gold back to Germany from US vaults. Since we know that the gold doesn’t exist, that will be the year we go to martial law and marijuana legalization will never happen.

Posted by Jose3 | Report as abusive

The sober way to legalize marijuana is to not be drunk on alcohol.

Posted by Jose3 | Report as abusive

We could also use the legalization of alcohol (for those prohibitionists who don’t remember the socially acceptable beverage was banned for over a decade with disastrous consequences) as a model where consumption actually dropped after legalization. That may be smarter then the pseudo legalization proposed in the current article. Not to mention it avoids the dubious proposition of the government having to monitor how many plants I grow in my own private home, or how much I purchase.

Posted by agsocrates | Report as abusive

I share the author’s worry about big corporations taking over something that should be run like a farmer’s market or ag co-op. In my lifetime I’ve seen the start of television advertising for pharmaceuticals, hard liquor, and cigarette sponsored sports. As soon as the big money in America smells an easy buck, they will pay their Republican politicians to legalize, and I would expect a substantial marketing effort will follow. I think that a trickle of money is starting to flow now. Legalization cuts into private prisons, contracts for building government prisons, the rehab industry when pot becomes less stigmatized, lawyers who are heavy Democratic donors, drug testing clinics, and people who supply helicopters and tactical gear to law enforcement. The people locked up exclusively for simple possession or small scale dealing is a pretty small percentage all offenders. Still, it will take a tip in the scales from what these different groups can donate to what big pharma or tobacco can donate, and at that point we might see the will of the people become legislation.

Posted by diluded0000 | Report as abusive

I’ve managed my life without marijuana quite well for 55 years. However, I find myself tending to agree with the Libertarian viewpoint as time goes by. In fact, it’s affecting my view of politics too (and my adult record too of voting the straight Republican ticket). I became a RINO (Republican in name only) in 2012 as I voted a split ticket and come 2014, will probably do it again because I am tired of those on the far right trying to imposes their values on others (much like those in the middle east, come to think of it). This, because, as I grow older I find myself growing more tolerant of those who want to live their own lives . . . and who aren’t bothering me. Thus, my only contribution to this article, which generally seems rather timid in its approach, is to instead suggest; don’t regulate this at all – just get out of the way and leave people alone.

Posted by jbeech | Report as abusive

As fewer people choose not to smoke cigarettes, the big tobacco companies are going to be looking at legalization with dollar signs in their eyes. They already have all aspects of the industry in place: distribution, farmers, sales reps, and on and on. They will drive how the laws are written, they have the motivation and the deep pockets to ensure they don’t lose out on this potential market.

Posted by KTN | Report as abusive

The sober way to legalize marijuana is to stop drinking poisonous alcohol.

Posted by Jose3 | Report as abusive

It can be argued that marijuana is already legal at the federal level under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993

1. Demand an immediate trial.
2. Object to every delay, even if the lawyer gets in a car wreck or the defendant gets beat up in prison. Have a lawyer on standby ready to go.
3. Plea bargain only to an infraction.
4. Under no circumstances accept any form of probation.
5. File lawsuit for “abuse of process” and “malicious prosecution” in the amount of $10,000 for each day the prosecution incarcerates the defendant.
6. Seek judicial relief under section 3(c) of RFRA.
7. Seek attorney fees under section 4(a) of RFRA.
8. Request a jury trial under section 3(c) of RFRA which refers to Article III of the US Constitution.
9. Put section 2(a)(1-5) on an overhead viewer for the jury to see while convincing one or more jurors to steadfastly stand up to an overbearing government that has gone too far.

Posted by Jose3 | Report as abusive

Pot makes you paranoid and arrogant. And hungry. It ruins your lungs faster than tobacco…

A word to the wise should suffice. Not much evidence of that rare commodity these days and certainly none in the article or the comments…(;~))

Posted by AbuShy | Report as abusive

Do not regulate any of these mood/mind altering natural plant based substances. (Caffeine, sugar and chocolate are also mood altering.) Only regulate bad behaviors as a consequence, those that could signal inappropriate use. Years ago I remember seeing statics that posed 80% of all violent crimes were committed while that person (almost always male) was intoxicated on Alcohol. But, that was before the crack epidemic. The crack epidemic started because of the cocaine crack down. So, how is that for un-intended consequences? The GOV needs to stop regulating private choices and instead intervene if and when help is needed. Then provide actual help and not incarceration. Legalizing those plants will put pharma corps largely out of business and save millions and millions of lives. Simple, Harm Reduction Model.

Posted by 2Borknot2B | Report as abusive