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On Monday’s episode of The Majority Report With Sam Seder, UCLA public policy professor Mark Kleiman was interviewed about the pros and cons of marijuana legalization, and the future of the practice in Colorado, Washington, and beyond. Kleiman, to his credit, tackled the negative repercussions of legalization from a standpoint far more economic and academic than ethical or moral, lending a much-needed dimension to the discussion that has been largely absent until this point, for me at least.
It’s easy to believe that marijuana legalization is an easy, net win for the progressive movement, but without a proper deployment strategy to ensure its long-term stability, the success of legalization and the benefits it can provide can hardly be assured. Many of Kleiman’s ideas have considerable merit; he’s a smart man, and has clearly done his homework on this rather tricky subject. He had me nodding in agreement to most of his points, until he said the following:
“The radical idea that I’m putting out there is: why not have everybody who is a cannabis buyer set a personal quota? So you come in, you might want to say, in order to become a cannabis buyer you have to pass a test, like a driving test. Just so people have memorized some facts.
Every time you buy, it’ll be taken off of your quota…if you want to raise your limit you can, but that doesn’t take effect for two weeks. So this is a simple nudge strategy, asking people to make a long-term plan about their cannabis use that will control their short-term behavior. It would help everybody.”
I suppose I shouldn’t find it all that surprising that a public policy analyst and scholar would be tone deaf to cannabis culture while advocating cannabis policy, but this statement left me flabbergasted. It flies in the face of the reality of drug culture. First off, as long as marijuana remains a Schedule One illegal narcotic under federal law, a conversation about usage quotas (read: cannabis registry) is not one we should be having. Period.
Second, you want me to pass a test just so I can get high? Seriously? The tiny Libertarian that lives in my reptile brain is screaming “Don’t Tread On Me!” at the very suggestion of it. It’s marijuana, not heavy machinery, for Chrissake. Problems like information sharing and responsible usage are easily remedied through other methods, like age restrictions, minimum staff training requirements, and regulations on advertising. Requiring people to pass a test in order to purchase marijuana creates a costly and unnecessary hurdle that will actually drive people back into the black market.
Beyond that, the idea of collecting information about people’s usage habits, even if well-intentioned, is a very dangerous one. Even if legalization at the federal level was a reality, it would have no effect on the prevailing cultural and political attitudes toward the marijuana usage across the country, both positive and negative, making this information ripe for abuse. This goes double for where the negative attitudes intersect with other cultural axes, like race, class, and ethnicity.
Kleiman goes on to suggest that we simply “put [quotas] under HIPAA rules” in order to “privacy protect that information,” but HIPAA’s privacy protections extend only to an individual’s medical records, so placing quota information under their authority would reinforce marijuana’s status as a medicinal product, greatly undermining efforts toward recreational reform.
Also, under HIPAA regulations, ‘covered entities’ (agencies covered by the law) can be be required to disclose information to law enforcement agencies under a court order, a warrant, or a subpoena. Once revealed in a court of law, information like people’s marijuana consumption habits would almost certainly be abused by career-minded prosecutors to gain easy convictions through slander, making it something that shouldn’t even be collected in the first place.
Furthermore, if Kleiman thinks that those who perpetuate negative myths about cannabis would even allow information like consumption quotas to be protected under HIPAA regulations, he hasn’t been paying enough attention to the cultural effect the ‘War On Drugs’ has had on society. The opportunity for plutocrats and politicians to use this information as a means to hamper the civil liberties of cannabis users would not be easily passed up. Their constituents and consumers wouldn’t allow it.
It’s easy to see where this leads. In the private sector, businesses already have considerable latitude to discriminate in their hiring practices. Knowing how much weed a prospective candidate smokes would give them even more. Think of how much more ‘effective’ New York City’s Stop And Frisk policy would be at subverting the rights of black and brown people: now, every time an officer runs a suspect’s ID or license plate, they’ll be told whether that suspect consumes cannabis, and roughly just how much. The spectrum of probable cause is wide enough as it is. Must we make it wider?
One of the main principles of legalization over decriminalization is no longer having your vices be a matter of record, whether public or private. To do otherwise creates a culture of privilege and suppression, one Mark Kleiman would cloak in the language of personal responsibility and self-determination, unanchored to concerns of privilege, bias, or stigma. It’s no surprise coming from a guy that doesn’t even want you to be able to buy marijuana over the counter in the first place. Because, y’know, we can just grow professional-quality pot in the backyards we don’t all have, or in the public spaces we can’t all afford to renovate. That’s so much simpler.