Politics & Other Mistakes: Solving the pot problem

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In Maine, it ought to be as easy to open a shop selling recreational marijuana as it is to open a store selling beer. But it’s not, and there’s one simple reason for that.

State and local officials don’t like pot.

Al DiamonOf the nearly 500 municipalities in Maine, only about 50 allow adults to legally buy weed. A half-dozen or more have outright bans on such sales. And yet bureaucrats in Augusta seem to be puzzled because they’re not collecting more tax revenue from recreational smokers.

After a year of legal sales, the state’s adult-use outlets sold about $70 million worth of products, a fraction of the $250 million in annual sales for medical marijuana. And it’s likely that figure is an even smaller fraction of the money raked in on the black market, which doesn’t appear to have suffered at all since legalization.

Not only is recreational pot unavailable in large swaths of the state, but where stores have been allowed to open, the product is priced well above that offered by medical marijuana caregivers and black marketeers. That’s because medical pot is relatively unregulated and illegal weed avoids all licensing fees and inspections, other than the slight possibility of arrest. But the ganja used for fun comes wrapped in miles of red tape.

To address this disparity, the Legislature is considering some bills, but, as is so often the case, the measures in question appear designed to make the problem worse. Rather than ease up on onerous rules that require tracking every molecule of THC intended for recreational use from creation to inhalation, a sizable contingent of our elected officials wants to impose similar restrictions on medical pot.

To be fair, there’s some justification for increased scrutiny of the caregivers. A significant percentage of them have a thriving sideline in selling to people who don’t have the required card stating a doctor has recommended marijuana as a treatment for one or more of a host of ailments. There’s considerable overlap between the caregiving community and the criminal community.

There are those in state government who think the answer to this problem is to crack down on medical pot by compelling that segment of the cannabis sales force to adhere to all the rules and regulations imposed on the hapless retailers. Among those in favor of this approach are prudes, prohibitionists – and the black market.

Increasing government oversight of medical pot will have exactly the opposite effect its proponents seek. Making that product adhere to stricter guidelines will increase costs, thereby forcing up the price of legal weed – and driving customers back to illegal dealers, who offer pot that’s cheap and readily available.

A better approach would be to model marijuana regulation on the successful system for managing craft beer sales. These entrepreneurs have a relatively easy time getting licensed and a high compliance rate with the (mostly) reasonable rules that are in effect. You may have noticed that craft-beer bootleggers are a rare species.

Under such a setup, adults who wish to indulge in the kind bud could visit “tasting rooms,” where they could sample the wares. They could even enjoy a beverage and a snack while doing so, THC-infused or otherwise. They might pay a little more than the price pot is going for on the street, a premium that could be justified by increased quality control and decreased chances of unpleasant interactions with law enforcement.

It’d be no worse than laying out eight bucks or more for a draft beer.

Marijuana customers could even play cornhole. Watching stoners and disoriented pot tourists testing their impaired eye-hand coordination by flinging beanbags in random directions ought to be entertaining enough to attract paying spectators.

The point is Maine could have a thriving retail pot industry, one that satisfies the desires of its considerable customer base, while also making a significant contribution to the tax base. All it will take is for government officials to shed the mindset that regards anything that might remotely be considered fun as a threat to the future of civilization.

If you think I’m one toke over the line, email [email protected].

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