Regulating the cannabis market is preferable to prohibition

By Paul Armentano, Special to CALmatters

Editor’s note: This commentary is a response to “Mental illness implications of cannabis cannot be ignored,” by Alex Berenson, April 14, 2019.

Those of us who advocate for the legalization and regulation of the adult use marijuana market do not opine that the plant is altogether harmless or that it cannot be misused.

Rather, it is because marijuana use may pose potential hazards to both the individual consumer and to public safety that advocacy groups such as mine, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, believe that lawmakers should regulate it accordingly.

These regulations include the imposition of age limits for would-be consumers, prohibitions on the unlicensed commercial production or retail sale of the plant, analytical testing and labeling of cannabis products, restrictions regarding the use of the substance in public, and the enforcement of criminal penalties for people who operate a motor vehicle while demonstrably under its influence, among others.

Similar regulations already exist governing the use, production, and retail distribution of alcohol and tobacco—substances that are far more dangerous and costly to society than cannabis. The enforcement of these regulations, coupled with sustained public health and awareness campaigns, have proven effective at reducing the public’s use of these two substances, particularly among adolescents.

For most Americans, regulatory alternatives are clearly preferable to cannabis criminalization. According to the latest national polling compiled by Gallup, 66 percent of adults, including majorities of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans, believe that the adult use of marijuana should be legal.

Furthermore, most people’s real-world experiences with cannabis regulation contradict Mr. Berenson’s grim forecast.

One in five citizens live in a jurisdiction where the adult use of marijuana is legal under state statute, and the majority reside someplace where the medical use of cannabis is legally authorized.

To date, no state has ever repealed a marijuana legalization law. Were the societal impacts of these legalization policies not preferable to those associated with criminal prohibition, or as dire to health and safety as some have alleged, public and political support in American for marijuana policy reform would be rapidly declining. Instead, just the opposite is true.

None of this is meant to imply our work is done. We should ensure that the regulated marijuana marketplace operates in a manner that is safe and responsible. Much like regulatory policies governing alcohol and tobacco have evolved over time, so too will cannabis-specific rules and regulations.

California’s newly launched experiment with legalization represents the starting point, not the end point in the battle for common-sense alternatives to marijuana prohibition.


Paul Armentano of Vallejo is deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and co-author of , “Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink” (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013), [email protected]. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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