There have been several alarming crimes in the news recently, reportedly linked to the burgeoning marijuana industry. The lurid headlines are leading some to believe that Montana's medical marijuana system is broken or even hopeless. Clearly, some changes are needed. The ultimate fix, however, is eluding most coverage.
Medical cannabis didn't "cause" the crimes mentioned. Cannabis is just a plant, used from time to time by some 100,000 Montanans for medical, spiritual, personal or social reasons.
It's just a plant, but a plant that sells for more than any other herb or spice on the market. Why?
It takes some skill and experience to reliably grow high-quality cannabis indoors. But cannabis requires no fancy laboratory processing, no dangerous chemicals, and no special tools or equipment beyond those needed for basic indoor gardening.
It's just a plant, less toxic than aspirin, less addictive than caffeine, and less intoxicating than alcohol.
It's just a plant, but because of the black market, it still sells for $250 to $400 per ounce. For perspective, a single tomato can weigh several ounces.
When you have dried flowers that command prices in the range of precious metals, it is simply inevitable that violent thugs will break the law to steal, hoard, defend and profit from it.
Medical marijuana, while a blessing to many, leaves the criminal black market intact, which keeps prices high. That's the reason for the violent crimes we've seen recently, not the plant itself.
The solution? Regulate cannabis in a manner similar to how we control beer and wine.
Under such a system, licensed producers would be allowed to sell to licensed retailers who would be responsible for age verification of their customers. These businesses would pay annual licensing fees, sales would be taxed (raising an estimated
$24 million annually) and we'd allow adults to produce a personal amount in private (just as we do with beer and wine). There would continue to be strict penalties for driving under the influence.
Under such a system, the seemingly bottomless well of medical marijuana gray areas would be eliminated, the black market would be virtually extinguished, and cannabis would become much harder for kids to buy because retailers would check IDs (and it would continue to be a crime to provide marijuana to minors).
Unbuoyed by prohibition, prices would fall and people for whom marijuana is medicine would immediately benefit from ready access from multiple licensed retailers. If the experience of numerous other states and countries is any guide, general usage rates would not go up.
Regulating cannabis more like alcohol would also embrace principles of individual liberty and privacy envisioned and enshrined in our nation's and state's constitutions.
Despite the recent headlines, we don't have a "medical marijuana crime problem" - we have a prohibition-related crime problem that is making the news because marijuana is legal for a small segment of the population. If you want to get control of the Prohibition-style gangster violence, the solution is to regulate marijuana similarly to beer and wine for all responsible adults.
John Masterson is director of Montana NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and writes from Missoula.