Problems with Legal Marijuana will Demand Coherent Policy ResponseRoundup
tags: drugs, marijuana, opium
Peter Thilly is assistant professor of history at the University of Mississippi and author of The Opium Business: A History of Crime and Capitalism in Maritime China.
On Oct. 6, President Biden announced pardons for anyone convicted of a federal crime for possessing cannabis. He urged governors to follow suit and directed his administration to expedite a review of whether cannabis belongs in the legal category containing the most dangerous drugs.
The move reflected the contentious, convoluted nature of cannabis policy in the United States, with the drug now legal in many states, even as it remains illegal under federal law.
States such as Illinois, Colorado and Maine have created bottom-up cannabis production and distribution regimes, each with unique systems of licensing, regulation and taxation. States with legalized recreational adult-use cannabis share long, porous borders with states that prohibit the possession and transport of cannabis. There is no federal policy other than prohibition, which exists in an awkward and unresolved tension with the variety of state laws in force.
The history of the legalization of a different drug by a very different government — opium, by the Qing dynasty in China — tells us that this incoherence can lead to violence and inequities. As legality gathers steam, having one set of coherent policies will be crucial to minimizing these potential downsides.
Opium was de facto legalized in China at the end of the 1850s, a catastrophic moment for the officials steering the late Qing state. The government had lost two wars to the British, producing a jaw-dropping litany of concessions and indemnities owed, all while beating back the unrelenting advance of the rebellious Taiping Heavenly Kingdom across the south and central provinces.
The choice to legalize opium really wasn’t a choice. Officials across the empire had long taxed opium informally and were eager to create more legitimate and lasting systems. And then, abruptly, the British foisted the basic parameters of legalization upon the Qing court at gunpoint in the 1858 Treaty of Tianjin. This agreement mandated a low and standardized opium import tax set by weight, rather than as a percentage of price.
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