The beginning of this year saw the first fully-fledged legal weed markets open in America in nearly a century. Lines formed, similar those for a midnight movie premiere. Giddy stoners stood in shops in amazement at the ease, variety and quality of the shopping experience.
Of course, this is not the introduction of a free market in marijuana. Rather, it is the state-controlled dream of political progressives who have been pushing for a government overhaul of the weed market for quite some time. At the root of this movement is an ethos of paternalism and extortion. Weed must only be legal under the condition that the government can act as “partner” and that it be put in the hands of “responsible” retailers. And thus, Big Marijuana is born.
Marijuana’s legalization seems much more like neoliberal privatization of markets than true liberation of them. While I do not question the decency of these first major marijuana retailers, there are legitimate concerns. Those most victimized by the state’s rabid oppression of marijuana markets will find themselves very often out of luck, as extensive background checks are required by law, and any drug felony charge is enough to exclude individuals from operating as vendors. TakePart magazine notes in an article that even as weed is legalized, those in prison for the crime of possessing or selling marijuana will remain there. While new businesses boom with customers, those who formerly tried to compete in this market remain locked up in cages.
The drug war has affected millions during its hellish tear through Americans’ lives and culture, but it has always been particularly racialized and classist. This leaves many black, Hispanic and poor individuals with a permanent hex affixed to them that these laws do not address. Like with the beltway libertarian conception of privatization, legalization picks the winners of the weed market from those who were lucky enough to not find themselves on the wrong side of the law and who already have access to the capital to invest into this expensive business.
Legalization, at its best, functions as an opposition to continued state violence against drug users and possessors. It is therefore troubling that we find even after this so-called legalization, many remain shackled both by the pre-existing landscape of the market and by new regulations which prohibit them from participating in it. It is never by the political means we realize our freedom, but only a hold-back of even worse oppression. We fight an uphill battle against the incredible damage the state does. And now facing the age of Big Marijuana, we might be shocked to find the sorts of restrictions many established pot shops favor. In order to delegitimize street dealers, we have to treat them as inherently dangerous and volatile.
This is the current direction of the marijuana movement in this country. It is towards centralization and exclusion, as are all white markets to some extent or another. This can be changed. It can be changed by fully humanizing and recognizing as innocent anyone and everyone accused of a drug crime. It can be changed by recognizing all individuals as legitimate self-owners, whose purchases and consumption are not the business of bureaucrats, cops, jailers or regulatory agencies. We must confront myths about the dangers of drugs and how they need to be controlled by those the state deems responsible.
On the bright side, attitudes are changing, especially toward marijuana use. The general tenor of the country has reached its most sane and scientific: Weed is neither dangerous nor a big deal. It is a personal choice. The only organization that seems to be living in the 1980s anymore is the federal government, which has stayed rather quiet this first historic week of 2014. Its miserable attempts to control even the most innocuous drug use are coming to a close. It is time Colorado, all other states and ultimate all individuals fully accept the ethos at the heart of the anti-drug war movement: You cannot control us.
Ryan Calhoun is a Philosophy student and activist at the University at Buffalo.