NYT: Big Pot
They assembled on the 40th floor of the tallest building in Seattle last week, the ex-Mexican president and the businessman who wants to be known as the Bill Gates of Bud. On the table: a pie bigger than the sky. It would involve drugs, suppliers and retailers, and laser-targeted marketing for buyers willing to pay a premium.
The would-be mogul, Jamen Shively, is trying to make the leap from Microsoft to marijuana. He’s not shy. He wants to plant the first brand-name retail chain in the United States in a market worth upward of $100 billion. “Yes, we are Big Marijuana,” he said as cameras clicked.
The ex-president, Vicente Fox, has seen his country suffer decades of carnage and corruption, all in service of this same market — the one that exists now, run by gangsters, drug lords and sketchy characters on city corners. To go legal, big and capitalistic, said Fox, who has no financial stake in Shively’s operation, would be “a game changer” for Mexico.
Starbucks is a role model, as is Kentucky bourbon. “There’s a land rush going on now,” Shively said in an interview. “Not for real estate, but for brands.”
If it all seemed like a bit of venture capital vapor, with too many questions left unanswered, jaw-dropping in its audacity, it’s because no one has gone where two states in the American West, Washington and Colorado, are now going with the pioneering blueprints for how to sell pot legally. Depending or your view, it’s either Lewis and Clark crossing the Continental Divide for the first time, or a step into slow-motion quicksand.
Mark Kleiman, the academic brought in to advise Washington State after voters approved of recreational marijuana use last fall, certainly has his doubts. “It was inevitable that the legalization of cannabis would attract a certain number of insensate greedheads to the industry,” he wrote in a blog post after Shively’s news conference. “And I suppose that it was also inevitable that some of them would be terminally stupid and self-destructive.”
Marijuana selling, and conspiring to sell it, remains a federal crime, Kleiman noted. Until the Obama administration says otherwise, schemes to open a giant chain of pot outlets could be seen as the kind of activity that might attract federal prosecutors. When I asked Shively about this critique, he said that if he’s guilty of conspiring to break federal law, the states of Washington and Colorado are as criminal as he is.
But they shouldn’t be. Attorney General Eric Holder, beleaguered on many fronts, has a monumental decision to make on whether to let two Western rogue states lead the way out of the senseless bog of pot prohibition.
For as preposterous, greedy and nutty as the business plan outlined by Shively may be, the alternative is far worse. In 2010, the states spent an estimated $3.6 billion enforcing laws against simple possession of marijuana — a 30 percent increase from 10 years earlier. About half of all drug arrests are for marijuana, meaning 800,000 people a year are cuffed, cited or jailed for doing something that a majority of Americans believe should be legal.
When a law is that widely abused in a democracy — the latest estimates are that 7 percent of the population uses marijuana regularly — it loses its moral validity. Imagine if that $3.6 billion in law enforcement money went to something less Sisyphean. Then imagine how much additional money the states could take in for schools, health care or substance abuse problems if they put a big tax on pot. Washington has crunched the numbers, and the high-end estimate is about $2 billion in tax revenue over five years.
Further, we now know that marijuana laws are used as a cudgel to selectively target a certain race. Guess which one? A major study released earlier this week found that blacks are four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as whites, even though similar percentages of whites and blacks use it.
And even if legalization of one drug would not end Mexican narco deaths linked to a number of illicit substances, putting a dent in a trade that is responsible for 60,000 people’s being killed in drug-related violence over the last six years is no small thing.
Yes, but wouldn’t Big Marijuana would be like Big Tobacco, or Big Alcohol? Do we really need another Philip Morris or Budweiser controlling our controlled substances? Even Patrick Dempsey, who plays the McDreamy character in television’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and who is trying to finalize a purchase of the Seattle coffee chain Tully’s, has talked of expanding from one drug to another in a big way.
“There’s a business model there,” he told Bon Appétit. “You could present it in a beautiful, elegant way: a Michelin-starred coffee shop where you can get marijuana.”
The beer industry, at least, is proof that thousands of small-scale microbreweries can thrive alongside the suds conglomerates that sell undrinkable industrial swill.
Finally, history shows that vice, when regulated and taxed, is far healthier for a society than black market vice. The mob used to control numbers rackets; now the states make billions selling those sucker bets to their citizens. Prohibition of alcohol, of course, launched countless criminals, and all the attendant violence. It’s much better to have Costco peddling spirits than a moonshiner with an assault rifle. Police departments used to have “bunco squads” to crack down on gambling parlors. Now the dens of chance are in churches.
I drove by the Catholic church from my boyhood in Spokane a few days ago, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The place where I became an altar boy had a big sign out front promoting its latest initiative: “Bunco Night.” Who knows, in 10 years they may be selling marijuana brownies at the same event.