Avoid a private marijuana market

(Getty Images)

To the Mercury:

In a recent op-ed for the Washington Post on the need for racial equity in marijuana legalization, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and current House Del. Don Scott wrote that we need “to challenge ourselves to do what is right, not what is easy.” We agree with that sentiment, but would like to extend it to the vital issue of public health and recreational marijuana. 

When prohibition was ending in the early 1930s, many states were keen to avoid turning alcohol sales and distribution over to the private market, due partly to public health concerns (and an interest in maximizing revenue). For that reason, a number of states, including Virginia, formed state monopolies over the strongest forms of alcohol and passed other restrictions limiting ownership in the various sectors of the industry. This was considered preferable to a return to the pre-Prohibition licensing system, since, as an article at the time noted, “It was tainted by political intrigues: and the desire for private profit inspired many novel methods of influencing consumption.”

8 big decisions facing Virginia lawmakers as they debate marijuana legalization

Although its mission has become more state revenue-focused over the years, Virginia’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority to this day includes in its mission statement the goal of “[promoting] public safety through the responsible sale and regulation of alcoholic beverages.” A similar case can and should be made for marijuana now. While it may not carry the many personal and public dangers of alcohol (ab)use, marijuana and its derivative products are not harmless, which would militate in favor of maintaining close control over its sale and distribution, rather than turning it over to private market forces that would constantly push for increased consumption, advertising and deregulation.

A number of prominent public health experts who specialize in tobacco and alcohol policy are likewise urging state governments to avoid a privatized marijuana market and opt instead for a state monopoly on sale and distribution. Rachel Barry and Stanton Glantz, for example, argue in a 2016 paper that ABC for marijuana would give the state “more control over access, price, and product characteristics (including youth-appealing products or packaging, potency, and additives) and would refrain from marketing that promotes increased use.”

Incidentally, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission came to similar conclusions in their report “Key Considerations for Marijuana Legalization.” According to the report authors, “a government control model is likely best able to achieve public health goals,” because, “unlike private businesses, the state would not have a profit motive to advertise or otherwise promote marijuana use.” The JLARC analysts also concluded that for the same reasons, a government control model would reduce the risk of legally produced marijuana being diverted to the illegal market. 

Ultimately, the JLARC authors dismiss the “government control model” because it would harder and more expensive upfront. If we care about public health, however, we must “challenge ourselves to do what is right, not what is easy.” For more, see our proposal on legalization.

— Tim Dempsey is a resident of Arlington and an organizer with Our Revolution Arlington, a progressive advocacy group.