Earlier this week, former Representative Patrick Kennedy argued on MSNBC’s Hardball that President Obama’s comments on marijuana legalization reflect a misunderstanding of the issue that marijuana use represents. Specifically, Kennedy claimed, the president’s idea that the plant is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco is based on shoddy science and fails to appreciate the potency of today’s marijuana strains.
“I think the president needs to speak to his NIH director in charge of drug abuse,” Kennedy said on MSNBC’s “Hardball” on Monday night. “[She] would tell the president that, in fact, today’s modern, genetically modified marijuana, so it’s much higher THC levels, far surpass the marijuana that the president acknowledges smoking when he was a young person.”
Kennedy said government research shows that marijuana is harmful.
“He is wrong when he says that it isn’t very harmful, because the new marijuana is not the old marijuana,” Kennedy said. “We need to have presidential decisions made based upon public health and the sound science that the federal government’s invested in.”
No matter how you feel about marijuana legalization, it seems that Kennedy here may be employing an argument that simply begs the question. In other words, to successfully say that marijuana legalization should be opposed on the grounds of today’s potency, you’d probably have to be pretty confident that the potency is not itself a result of the drug’s illicit status over the past handful of decades.
That’s not a foregone conclusion. Economist Mark Thornton, who grants that the potency of street drugs has been increasing over the past few decades, argues that the increasing concentration of illicit substances is a direct result of prohibition itself, which manifests itself wherever substances for ingestion are made contraband by the state.
Super potent pot is not a market failure. It is simply the result of government prohibition. In fact, it is one of the best examples of the iron law of prohibition. When government enacts and enforces a prohibition it eliminates the free market which is then replaced by a black market. This typically changes everything about “the market.” It changes how the product is produced, how it is distributed and sold to consumers. It changes how the product is packaged and in particular, the product itself. The iron law of prohibition looks specifically at how prohibition makes drugs like alcohol and marijuana more potent. The key to the phenomenon is that law enforcement makes it more risky to make, sell, or consume the product. This encourages suppliers to concentrate the product to make it smaller and thus more potent. In this manner you get “more bang for the buck.”
Thornton looks to the prohibition of alcohol in the early twentieth century as an example and finds that low density drinks like beer and wine virtually disappeared in America at the time, giving way to high density “rotgut whiskey,” which would be watered down at the point of consumption. This may be similar to the way that many drugs are “cut” with something before eventually making their way to consumers. (This, in fact, is frequently cited as the origin of the cocktail’s widespread popularity in America, as providers of this harsh and potent whiskey sought to cover up its unpleasant smell and taste–although the anecdote does seem to be disputed).
Thornton emphasizes that this effect is not endogenous to the market for marijuana itself but rather results from outside interference:
Therefore, the current high potency of marijuana is not a market phenomenon, nor is it a market failure. It is primarily driven by government’s prohibition and the odd incentives that this produces on the sellers’ side of the market. Under these conditions consumers may prefer higher potency marijuana, ceteris paribus, but it is not primarily a consumer driven phenomenon.
When marijuana is legalized we should expect the market to reemerge and to commercialize the product. In fact, we should expect to see a variety of products offering different potencies. Individual brands would be expected to emerge offering a relative stable potency along with other product attributes, such as, taste, flavor, smell, and packaging.
Thornton has written extensively on this topic, so if you’re interested in what he’s got to say there are plenty of other pieces to choose from. In the end, Patrick Kennedy’s analysis misses the mark as far as a criticism of marijuana legalization goes. There are plenty of sound reasons why somebody might be opposed to marijuana legalization, but opposing it on the basis of a potency that is likely the result of its prohibition in the first place begs the question, and does not meaningfully contribute to the debate on this issue.