Sunday, December 08, 2013

This is what legalization looks like.

It's started to spread across the country, especially in beer aficionado circles, but here's a news story that first started attracting chuckles here in Vermont. From the Burlington Free Press:
The Vermont Department of Liquor Control cited a Burlington woman who they say sold the popular Vermont beer Heady Topper online.
 It's pretty irresistable, right? Hipsters willing to overpay for overhopped beer, headlines for Vermont's current fave local product, juxtaposed with a little private enterprise and a government agency too concerned with prosecuting minor, if not imaginary, victimless crimes. If you're looking for a little harmless diversion on your way to some serious news, this one has it all.
Only the thing is, get used to it.
Nowadays the tide on marijuana prohibition has turned, and just about every sensible person agrees that legalization is inevitable, with the only question being "How soon?". The problem is that as a recent article in the New Yorker makes clear, legalization of marijuana is way more complicated than clearing the path for you to keep buying from your old college roommate (let's call him Dave), only without worrying about getting caught.
 No. Remember how part of the argument for legalized marijuana has always been that it's such a lucrative agricultural product that we might as well be collecting taxes on it? Maybe enough to wipe out the deficit?
Well, to be sure the taxes are being collected we have to do way more than tell the cops to stop arresting dealers, we also have to establish a whole regulated, taxed market, which is pretty complicated. They're trying to do it right now in Washington, but new questions pop up at every turn. For example, if you want people to buy their pot in the regulated market, and not keep buying it from Dave you have to give them reasons to make the switch.
As Mark Kleiman, a public policy expert, says in the New Yorker article:
 We want people to pay the taxes, which means they're going to have to stop going to their old friend Dave and start going downtown, maybe right next door to where they buy their Heady Topper. Otherwise, no taxes, no controls on safety and purity of product, chaos.
That doesn't sound terribly bad to me, and maybe not to you. After all, if marijuana is going to be a legal product, why should I care any more if the people selling it have licenses than I care about any other legal product, like flashlights or umbrellas in New York City within thirty seconds of when it starts raining?
Well, we want to collect the tax, right? And why would someone buy in a licensed retailer, where you know you're going to pay the tax on top of the price, when they can call Dave, get a bag, and pay less?
Which is where our Heady Topper entrepreneur comes in. Beer is a legal product, and just about every adult is allowed to buy it, but that doesn't mean everyone who is lucky enough to get their hands on a case of the old Topper is allowed to sell it legally.
You should read the New Yorker article. You'll see that, at a minimum, it raises questions you probably never thought about. 

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