Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.
It's a great honour to have been asked to address this distinguished body as part of this genuinely historic process. I've been working on cannabis policy for almost four decades now. My firm was the adviser to the Washington State Liquor Control Board as it implemented Washington's cannabis legalization.
I would urge you in this process to pay attention to results, not slogans. The case for the legalization of cannabis is not its lack of risk, as we've heard from the other witnesses this morning. The case for legalization is the inability to control the illicit market and the harm the illicit market does and the fact that lots of people would like to use cannabis and can, in fact, do so harmlessly.
There is a tendency in public policy debates and in policies themselves to lurch from one extreme to another. At least in the U.S., we're in the process of lurching from considering cannabis an evil weed to considering it a harmless herb. Unfortunately, each is an imprecise characterization.
For almost any drug, the majority of the users of that drug do so harmlessly, and indeed, with some benefit to themselves. That's what keeps them using it. A minority wind up losing control of their consumption and engaging in problematic use. Tobacco in the form of cigarettes is the one exception to that, where most of the users engage in problematic use.
That minority of heavy users, however, accounts for not only almost all the damage involved with the use of any drug but for a large majority of the consumption of that drug. I don't have the numbers for Canada, but in the U.S., more than half of all the alcohol consumed is consumed as part of drinking binges, even though most drinking occasions are not to intoxication and are harmless. Eighty per cent of the alcohol consumed in the U.S. is consumed by people who drink more than is good for them. We see comparable numbers with cannabis.
The goal of legalization, I suggest, ought to be the availability of cannabis to those who want to use it temperately while minimizing the number of people who get in trouble with it; so, access without excess. As we've heard from others this morning, that is not a goal that is automatically served by a free market, because that same 80-20 rule that drives public health concerns—as I said, 20% of the heaviest users are going to do themselves most of the damage—also drives marketing concerns.
If you are in the business of selling a drug that some people become addicted to, they are your best customers. What from a public health point of view is a diagnosis, from a marketing point of view is a target demographic. That's equally true whether you're British American Tobacco or Imperial Distillery or the Ontario liquor board. If your goal is to maximize the amount of money you make, you're going to focus on cultivating heavy users, and that's precisely the opposite of the public health objective we ought to be serving.
There's a widespread belief that we should regulate cannabis like alcohol, as if we've been successful in regulating alcohol. That seems to be an obvious fallacy once you have stated it. I think it would be wiser, if we're going to imitate some currently illicit market, to imitate the tobacco market, where, short of prohibition, the government makes aggressive efforts to minimize problematic use. That's a policy regime I've called grudging toleration. It seems to me that we ought to be grudgingly tolerating cannabis and not allowing its promotion.
A key element in promoting or controlling heavy use is price, again, as has been noted. It's important to understand that the natural tendency of the price of cannabis as a legal commodity is toward zero. A joint is a small amount of dried plant matter in a wrapping. The legal product that's closest to that is a tea bag. If we allow a free market in cannabis, the price of a joint will tend toward the price of a tea bag, and that's not where we want it to go. We already see in Colorado and Washington steady and rapid decreases in prices in the legal stores. My colleagues Jon Caulkins at Carnegie Mellon and Steve Davenport at RAND Corporation estimate that Colorado and Washington legal prices are falling at 2% per month and there's no bottom in sight.
The way to counteract that, if you're not going to have a public monopoly, is with aggressive taxation. That cannot be taxation based on retail price, because as the retail price goes to zero, the tax will go toward zero. The right way to tax cannabis, from a policy point of view and a health point of view, is to tax the active agent, THC. We need a specific excise, not an ad valorem tax. It should be substantial. Something like $50 a gram of THC would more or less maintain current illicit prices in the newly licit market, and that seems to me a reasonable objective.
Information is another key element of any prevention policy where we're trying to prevent a substance use disorder. Restricting marketing seems to me a very important idea, not merely because the advertising itself will attract new users, as it's intended to, but because the presence of advertising dollars will influence the editorial content of advertising media. It's striking that in the U.S., the first mass-market magazine to warn about the dangers of tobacco smoking was Reader's Digest. It wasn't because it was the most progressive or intellectually adventurous magazine; it was because it was the only one that was supported by reader subscription rather than by advertising. Controlling cannabis marketing will have a big impact on the way cannabis is described in editorial content.
Every cannabis buyer has to confront some seller, either somebody taking an order over the phone or a clerk in a store. That point-of-sale contact is the one place where we can make sure of connecting with every consumer. It seems to me that it would be wise to require those people to have training in pharmacology and in substance use prevention so that people, particularly new consumers, aren't getting their first information about cannabis from somebody who sells cannabis for a living and is frequently a very heavy user themselves. Those retail clerks ought to have a professional qualification and a professional obligation to give advice in the interests of the consumer and not in the interests of the store owner. They ought to be more like pharmacists than packaged goods clerks.
There are two things we might want to encourage both at that point-of-sale and in publicly funded information. One is the notion of use to less than intoxication. The striking difference between cannabis today and alcohol today is that most occasions of alcohol use are not to intoxication. That is not the case for cannabis. “Getting stoned” is a common synonym for cannabis use. It is possible that we might introduce to the population the notion that one might take a puff in order to improve the taste of food, or the sound of music, or the pleasure of conversation rather than having cannabis intoxication as the primary activity one is engaging in. I have no reason to think that this will work, but it's something we could try.
The other thing I'd like to see emphasized, both at point-of-sale and in mass media, is the importance of abstaining from combination use. Forty years ago in the U.S., cannabis on the one hand and alcohol and tobacco on the other were virtually opposites socially. They represented different cultural forces. Now in the surveys, heavy tobacco use, heavy alcohol use, and heavy cannabis use are all the same population.
Through cannabis legalization, one beneficial possibility is that you could substitute for other more dangerous drugs. We undertake policies to encourage that possible beneficial tendency.