Nationalize the Weed Industry

Today is 4/20, so we’re indulging in some speculation: What if we didn’t just legalize marijuana but put the cannabis industry under public ownership — and hired the victims of prohibition to run it?

Marijuana is well on its way to federal legalization, but what will the industry look like? (Matteo Paganelli / Unsplash)

“As president,” Joe Biden says in an October 2020 ad his campaign never bothered to remove from YouTube, “I’ll work to reform the criminal justice system, improve community policing, decriminalize marijuana, and automatically expunge prior marijuana convictions.” Looking straight at the camera, he ends the short spot: “I’m Joe Biden, and that’s my commitment to you.”

Biden has been president for well over a year and has yet to make good on his commitment. Nonviolent drug offenders are still getting locked up.

Sooner or later, though, there’s no doubt marijuana will be federally legal. It’s already recreationally legal in eighteen states and medically legal in another thirty-seven. The question I find myself thinking about on this 4/20 is, what kind of legal marijuana industry do we want?

One option — the mostly likely — is a privately owned weed industry that allows rich people to get even richer by investing in it. But there’s a better solution. We could put the new industry under public ownership — and hire the victims of prohibition to run it.

A Country That Celebrates Weed — and Cracks Down on It

If you don’t think of today as a holiday, your teens and early twenties were different from mine. I’m a boring middle-aged man now, and when I do partake my weed tolerance is a fraction of what it used to be — but just hearing “four” and “twenty” still makes me smile.

My favorite explanation of the association of 4:20 (the time) and 4/20 (the date) with cannabis culture is that it stems from H. P. Lovecraft and Kenneth Sterling’s 1939 short story “In the Walls of Eryx.” In the story, the main character has a trippy experience, and when his sense of reality comes flooding back to him, he looks at his watch and is “astonished to find the time was only 4:20.”

More than likely, this is just a coincidence and one of the more mundane alternative explanations is correct. But the Lovecraftian theory is so much more fun.

And that, more than anything, is also how weed is portrayed in mainstream US culture — as slightly naughty and subversive, but innocent fun all the same. Think about the Harold and Kumar movies. Or That ’70s Show, the long-running Fox sitcom where Eric Forman and his friends would sit around in a circle in the family basement laughing, joking, and getting high.

In a sop to the network’s censorship rules, the camera would swing around the circle while the joint was passed just off-screen and smoke drifted into the frame, so no teenager was ever technically depicted breaking marijuana laws. But it was an unambiguously affectionate portrayal of a substance that wouldn’t be recreationally legal in a single state until six years after the show went off the air.

America has long looked on weed culture with a fond and indulgent smile — even as it keeps locking up many thousands of people for doing exactly what the employees of weed shops will, soon enough, be legally doing in every state.

A Just Future for Legal Weed

As the country meanders toward full federal legalization, we already know what the future of the marijuana industry will probably look like: already profitable corporations branching out into the lucrative weed business — while little is done for the people whose lives were destroyed by the criminal justice system for plying the same trade.

Here’s what a better version of federal legalization might look like:

New Hampshire’s state monopoly on liquor stores is a useful model. Anyone who’s driven through the Granite State and likes whiskey has probably stopped at one. The individual stores have numbers instead of names, but many are so gigantic and well-stocked that they’re roadside attractions. People drive in from other states to browse the shelves for good bourbons sold cheap because New Hampshire doesn’t charge sales tax on products it sells at its own stores.

A nationalized marijuana industry could, like those stores owned by the New Hampshire Liquor Commission, bring enormous revenues into the public sector to help pay for badly needed social services. And as partial compensation for the victims of prohibition, anyone who’s served time in prison for nonviolent cannabis crimes could skip to the front of the line when applying for jobs at one of the new nationalized weed shops. If the strains that lined the shelves at these stores were grown not by the new Federal Marijuana Commission directly but contracted out to growing cooperatives to increase variety and consumer choice, a requirement of the contracts could be that the co-ops also preferentially hired people who had been imprisoned for growing or selling the stuff during prohibition.

It’s hard to estimate the amount of money likely to be netted by a future federally legal marijuana industry, whether public or private, but given how much money the cannabis industry is already making in the eighteen states with full legalization, it’s likely that a nationalized weed industry could both provide large numbers of good, unionized public-sector jobs and do things like pay for housing for every single homeless person in the United States.

Meanwhile, offering jobs in the industry to nonviolent drug offenders would be a baby step toward justice. After what this country has put them through, it’s the very least we could do.

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Ben Burgis is a Jacobin columnist, an adjunct philosophy professor at Morehouse College, and the host of the YouTube show and podcast Give Them An Argument. He’s the author of several books, most recently Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters.

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