One of the most compelling arguments against the prohibition of cannabis has been the impact legalization would have on cannabis’ black market. And although recreational use of marijuana is legal in Alaska, California, Colorado, Washington, DC., Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington state, the black market remains. That isn’t to say that legalization hasn’t made a difference. It has. But this does make one wonder. If you live in a state where marijuana is legal, why would you choose to take the riskier route and purchase through an illegal dealer? There are two major reasons for the black market’s longevity: price and convenience. You don’t have to pay taxes for street pot, so it’s a little easier for dealers to compete with the retail dispensaries that often tack on pretty hefty taxes to comply with state regulations. It also feels a little more convenient to purchase weed from your friendly neighborhood dealer than to drive out to a dispensary employed by people you don’t really know. But here’s the thing. Those reasons, while understandable, just aren’t good enough. Sure, no one throws a parade every time they pay taxes, but that tax revenue can also make communities stronger. And yeah, the relationship you have with your dealer is important, and stores can be shady. But are your dealer’s feelings and your perception of a store’s trustworthiness of greater consequence than the very real dangers the black market poses across communities? There is a big difference between street bought and store-bought pot, and the reasons are three-fold. The quality of store-bought cannabis is better, the economic benefits made from legal purchases are smarter, and the socio-political environments created by the legal VS the black market are starkly different and present ethically profound considerations.
Street vs. Legal Quality
Unfortunately, because marijuana is not an FDA approved crop thanks to its Schedule 1 status, there is no standardized protocol built into the legal industry to ensure the safety of the marijuana products consumers are purchasing. However, more and more dispensaries are recognizing the importance of cannabis testing and are sending samples of their products to be tested for potency, fungicides, pesticides, and microbial contamination. As legal marijuana becomes a more accepted and integral part of American culture, states will likely respond (as Colorado and Washington have) by creating more comprehensive safety regulations that include cannabis testing. The legalized industry’s safety measures aren’t perfect. A lack of oversight, a desire to save money, and a certain level of ignorance mean that not every dispensary is testing, and not every lab is testing the right way. But it’s a work in progress. And that’s the difference between legal and street weed when it comes to quality. Black market marijuana isn’t held to any quality and safety standards, period.
Let’s start with how the black market helps the economy. It doesn’t.
Black market funds are not allocated to government infrastructure, education, or other social programs
The money dealers make stays within the black market. I guess one could argue that the money helps people who feel they can’t find employment in a legal business, but that is quickly blighted by the economic and social cost of arrest, imprisonment, and cartel activity. On the other hand, Marijuana tax revenue is kind of a big deal. For example, Colorado made about $135 million in pot taxes, and that money is being used to educate children and adults about the newly legalized substance, to fund school construction projects, and to subsidize municipality determined projects which include programs for the homeless or college scholarships. In Alaska, pot taxes will be allocated for the Department of Public Safety’s Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, community residential centers, Department of Corrections’ Substance Abuse Treatment Program, and the Department of Health and Social Services’ Behavioral Health Treatment and Recovery Grants. These government programs play a big role in strengthening their communities, and legal marijuana plays a big role in strengthening those programs. Despite the positive ways that marijuana revenue is impacting local communities, the industry faces some substantial obstacles. For one, simply making the decision to invest in legal marijuana is pretty risky because it’s illegal. Nope, that wasn’t a typo.
Marijuana’s federally illegal status makes banks wary of taking on the liability of working with dispensaries
In 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice stated that it would not prosecute medical dispensaries that abided by their states’ guidelines. After Colorado and Washington legalized the recreational use of cannabis in 2012, the Justice Department’s 2013 Cole Memo stated that it would not prioritize recreational operations that complied with their states’ marijuana laws. Despite those olive branches, the feds have never given the legal marijuana industry blanket protection from the law, something that probably won’t happen until cannabis is rescheduled. Banks fear that if they work with dispensaries, they could lose their accreditation or face money-laundering charges. This puts a lot of dispensaries in a precarious situation. Dealing exclusively in cash places a target on these businesses that burglars are not ignoring. What does banking have to do with whom you purchase your weed from? Everything. Marijuana ended up on the drug schedule because of legislation born out of American xenophobia and racism. The people drive the social climate surrounding marijuana. When you purchase your marijuana from a legal dispensary, you give the industry more legitimacy. At the end of the day, even if it takes until 11:59 PM, legislators will listen to their constituents. And if your community supports the legal industry, legislation will eventually follow.
Legal marijuana seems to be working better than the drug war did— the US feds seized 1.5 million pounds less marijuana from the Mexican border than they did in 2009. And if legal marijuana is hurting the Mexican cartel, that’s a really good thing given that the cartel and the war on drugs have been responsible for horrific violence and crime. The relationship between Mexico, the United States, and marijuana is an old one, and it’s not so pretty. Although the cannabis plant was farmed quite a bit in the colonies even before the United States became a country, it wasn’t used for narcotic purposes. Cannabis’ recreational uses were introduced during the 19th century’s Mexican Revolution when a wave of Mexican refugees fled to the United States seeking safety from the violent war. Conveniently, it was as Mexicans entered our country in mass numbers that marijuana suddenly became a “menace” responsible for violence and crime. Of course, actual science disproved that propaganda, but the ignorance and fear of the people reigned over the facts, and, fast forward a hundred years, we end up with a law stating that marijuana is more dangerous than meth and cocaine and has zero medical use. Two August 2016 requests to reschedule the plant were rejected by the DEA (responses 1 and 2) because of a lack of evidence from clinical studies justifying its medicinal uses, despite the many medical uses marijuana has been found to have according to—you guessed it—clinical studies! The law’s problem with marijuana is not factual. Come on. The law supports pharmaceuticals, alcohol, and refined sugar. Those things are killing us quicker than a cannabis tincture can get you high.
Taking the crossover from street to store is important. It keeps you safer since the quality of the marijuana you are consuming is regulated according to higher standards. It benefits local businesses that have made the risky and revolutionary decision to invest in the legal marijuana industry and strengthen communities that profit from the tax revenue collected from legal sales. It delegitimizes the black market, keeping communities across the country safer and giving the federal government more evidence in favor of rescheduling cannabis.
Support the legal marijuana industry
Don’t give the federal government fodder for propaganda and discriminatory legislation.