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Bootleggers, Baptists, bureaucrats, and bongs: How special interests will shape marijuana legalization

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Where there are markets, regulations, and money, special interests and self-serving behavior will not be far away. So argue Philip Wallach and Jonathan Rauch in this new paper that examines how special interests are likely to shape marijuana legalization and regulation in the United States.

Why did legalization of marijuana break through in the face of what had long been overwhelming interest-group resistance? In a post-disruption world, how might key social and bureaucratic actors reorganize and reassert themselves? As legalization ushers in a “new normal” of marijuana-related regulation and lobbying, what kinds of pitfalls and opportunities lie ahead? In this paper, Wallach and Rauch address those questions through the prism of what political economists often call the theory of public choice—the study of how interest groups and bureaucratic incentives influence policy outcomes. Their conclusions include:

  • For many years, the marijuana-policy debate was dominated by an “iron triangle” of anti-legalization interests: moralists and public-health advocates who believe marijuana use is wrong or harmful; commercial and gray-market interests with stakes in drug treatment and medical marijuana; and law-enforcement and quasi-governmental entities whose budgets and missions are sustained by the war on drugs. Those interests’ combined firepower stunted change even as public support for marijuana prohibition softened.
  • To make possible the wholesale disruption that has happened with marijuana legalization, public opinion change was necessary, but it was not sufficient. Also required was the disruption of the iron triangle. That was accomplished in the late 2000s through a shrewdly crafted campaign of “asymmetric warfare” that aimed money and argumentation at the incumbent coalition’s weakest points. In particular, reformers shifted the public’s focus from harms of marijuana use to harms of marijuana criminalization.
  • The rise of commercial marijuana interests and a potentially controversial “marijuana lobby” may impede legalization’s momentum as its opponents change the subject once again, from harms of criminalization to harms of corporate predation.
  • The present disrupted regulatory environment is unlikely to last. Old prohibitionist interests are discombobulated and new commercial-marijuana interests are still getting organized, giving legalizing states a degree of regulatory freedom which is exceptional but probably not durable. Over time, multiple interests will coalesce and colonize the regulatory process.
  • Despite widely touted concern that one or more disproportionately powerful players will dominate the regulatory system, regulatory incoherence should be a greater concern than regulatory capture. As policymakers increasingly need to navigate complex and conflicting interest-group politics, the result is at least as likely to be overregulation and misregulation as it is to be systematic underregulation.

Ultimately, Wallach and Rauch conclude that the emerging model of state-level regulation provides valuable insulation against interest-group depredations in the marijuana industry. Even if the federal government eventually legalizes marijuana, they argue, it should leave marijuana regulation primarily to the states.

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Authors

Philip A. Wallach

Senior Fellow - R Street Institute

Former Expert - Brookings Institution

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