Magazine article Reason

The Benefits of Unregulated Pot: California's "Wild West" Demonstrates the Domesticating Power of Capitalism

Magazine article Reason

The Benefits of Unregulated Pot: California's "Wild West" Demonstrates the Domesticating Power of Capitalism

Article excerpt

LAST SEPTEMBER the Washington State Liquor Control Board published a 43-page list of proposed guidelines for the sale of recreational marijuana. A few days later, Colorado issued an even longer set of rules, 136 densely packed pages in all.

In the realm of legal, commercialized cannabis, a new age is upon us: the age of pungent regulatory skunk. To prove how committed they are to freedom, personal choice, and the pursuit of herbally induced happiness, Washington and Colorado are imposing consumer purchase ceilings, retail sign limits, mandatory packaging requirements, and taxes.

What about California? Seventeen years after deciding that marijuana should be at least as permissible as Vicodin, California still has no statewide regulations governing the production and distribution of medical marijuana. Since the U.S. Department of Justice has suggested it will not meddle with pot legalization in states with "strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems," California is increasingly characterized as a dysfunctional laggard.

The onetime medical marijuana trailblazer, concluded a September article in the SF Weekly, is "being left behind ... stalled out while other states innovate and attract entrepreneurship." In The Huffington Post that same month, Diane Goldstein, a spokesperson for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, voiced similar concerns: "In California, it's been the wild, wild west. The laws have been too vague, and when the laws are too vague, it allows people to undermine the law--both the bad apples in the industry and law enforcement."

But how accurately does a phrase like "the wild, wild west" describe what has taken place in California? A previously forbidden sector of commerce has evolved into an increasingly professionalized multibillion-dollar industry, complete with a robust retail infrastructure, a lucrative trade in equipment and supplies, trade shows, media outlets, educational institutions, and a surprisingly vast supply of entrepreneurial Stoners who seem to get at least as buzzed by marketing, product innovation, and event management as they do by a few puffs of Platinum Skywalker. All without any regulatory hand holding from Sacramento.

Recently I visited CW Analytical, a commercial laboratory located in an industrial part of Oakland, across the street from a Mother's Cookies factory. Inside the lab, a technician in a white lab coat hovered intently over a table adorned with an array of small plastic vials partially filled with green liquid. CW Analytical offers voluntary quality assurance services to dispensaries, edibles producers, growers, and consumers who want to analyze the potency and safety of their cannabis. It tests products for microbiological contamination and pesticide exposure, and it offers a range of other services designed to bring transparency, consistency, and reliability to the industry.

In 2007 another Oakland-based lab, Steep Hill, pioneered this aspect of the pot trade. Today there are enough labs spread throughout the state to support a trade organization, the Association of Commercial Cannabis Laboratories. According to Robert Martin, who co-founded CW Analytical and heads the association, only around 20 percent of the state's dispensaries currently get their product tested at facilities like his. There have been some questions regarding the accuracy, competence, and impartial status of the labs that have set up shop. Yet the laboratories are another example of the industry's gravitational drift toward order--and another indication of medical marijuana's exceptional status in our current hyper-regulatory climate.

We live in an age of pervasive government intervention. The Code of Federal Regulations has added 43,504 pages since California first passed Proposition 215 in 1996. Yet while this bureaucratic bulwark was growing as thick as the Great Wall of China, our nation's largest state, which doubles as the world's eighth-largest economy, was permitting the sale of a substance that had been illegal for 60-plus years. …

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