I’m pleased to report that my op-ed on on-site consumption has been posted on USA Today online (and the print edition for Thursday): Bring Back the Opium Den. I wanted to take a moment to comment on a couple of things that, for space reasons, didn’t make it into the final column.
I picked a pretty spicy title, and I know the very notion of an opium den generally isn’t associated with anything positive. I wanted to use this title to call attention, however obliquely, to the racist history that (at least partly) animates drug laws. By now, most people who have looked into marijuana prohibition know about Harry Anslinger. But opium dens, too, were sites of anti-Chinese sentiment, and the irony is that China tried to ban opium only to have Great Britain go to war to stop them. That’s right–one of the first drug wars was to keep markets open. How the worm has turned.
I also wanted to say a few more things that got lost in the shuffle.
First, if we are concerned about kids, then it is curious that we allow any off-site consumption. Kids only get alcohol that way. We actually, in part, allow “to go” liquor purchases for our convenience and enjoyment. Hedonism does sometimes outweigh public safety. I’m not suggesting that that’s good or bad, but I do want to point out that it’s something that exists. There are, of course, significant market incentives to cater to those desires, and that, too has regulatory implications.
Second, I had a lot more to say about how problems from onsite consumption could be managed (and should be understood). If you could only buy marijuana for immediate consumption, businesses who sold marijuana would check ID immediately before consumption, not just before purchase, making sure that limits are placed on those who can consume marijuana, not just those who can buy it. If we’re concerned about usage, these businesses can limit consumption, the way bars can refuse service to drunken patrons.
As for DUID concerns, people do, of course, drive to and from private homes where they consume marijuana now, and they would also do so if there were no commercial establishments in which to smoke. But, more importantly, marijuana tavern owners could monitor use and face liability for over-serving someone. All of the ways in which we limit drunk driving apply to DUID, and this kind of regulation is made easier if there are centers of marijuana consumption. Enforcement can be geographically centralized.
By keeping sales tightly linked to the spot of consumption, the state could also tax and track marijuana more easily. We could also make a good business opportunity—especially for restaurants. Who wouldn’t want to upsell someone with the munchies? It is unlikely that pot itself will command much of a premium in a legalized market, since its high price now is a function of the risk of prohibition.
Finally, I mostly wanted to call attention to an issue that doesn’t get the attention it deserves, other than from Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes. The RAND corporation just did a very large (218 page) study on legalization in Vermont and said almost nothing about the option of having onsite consumption. Don’t get me wrong–I think the study is great, and I am an avid reader of the study’s authors both individually and collectively, but in such an otherwise comprehensive report there is one mention on p54 about how declining prices will create pressure for on-premises consumption, a mention that Washington and Colorado ban on-premises consumption (see, e.g., p104), but nothing suggesting that it is a policy option (on-site consumption is not included as one of the “Eight Regulatory Decisions for Legal Marijuana”). The authors do suggest delivery as an option (pp108-109)–something that, in my view, would maximize the potential for diversion. DUID could be an advantage of delivery, but only if we assume that everyone consumes in their homes upon receipt and that no one, instead, invites guests over or takes the marijuana with them. (The authors also state that delivery could limit access to teens by requiring ID’s, etc., but once the door is shut, the state loses control over who consumes it when.)