On unintended consequences and the odd relationship between a traumatic pneumothorax and making marijuana legal

In Ports and pot, I asked Doug Berman rhetorically: Could it be that the new legal regime in the Rocky Mountains is a “win-win” for both the cartels and the State of Colorado? Doug responded. As usual his views were vigorously argued.

Needing a CT guided needle biopsy of my left lung, I stalled for time to address Doug’s trenchant remarks. At about the same time, Scott Greenfield, at Simple Justice, asked if everyone could play. I said sure. Now, Scott has posted an extremely well-reasoned response to my question. See Is The Rocky Mountain High A Win-Win?

It is the weekend. No medical stuff is scheduled. I no longer have an excuse for failing to defend my views about the idiocy of Colorado’s pot policy and my concern that such a policy may be a “win-win” for the cartels and Colorado (at least so far as sin taxes are a “painless” way of raising state revenues).  So, here goes.

Preface

First, today, I am not addressing medical marijuana. Indeed, I am glad that the Obama administration announced Friday that it was extending to the University of Arizona a waiver to study the potential medicinal benefits of marijuana. That said, if I were the King, and it was determined that there was in fact medicinal benefits to the drug, I would dictate that registered pharmacists dispense the drugs as opposed to street corner vendors.

Second, with regard to the broader question of making marijuana freely available, I found the February 26, 2014, editorial of the Christian Science Monitor, entitled “Warning signs on Colorado’s marijuana legalization” to be well worth reading. As the editorial points out, there is good reason to believe that Colorado’s experiment is dangerous and especially for children. Perhaps surprisingly, and as the newspaper recounts, the Governor of Colorado expresses many of the concerns highlighted by the Monitor.

Third, I thank Doug and Scott for their engagement.

Introduction

I have shamelessly used my illness as a foundation for recent posts to this blog. This iteration continues that ploy.

On Friday, I went to the University of Nebraska Medical Center for a CT guided needle biopsy of nodule in my left lung. The friendly and skilled assistant professor of medicine, Dr. Cris Vargo, who did the procedure, warned me of the risk of unintended consequences like a collapsed lung, referred to medically as a traumatic pneumothorax.

As I remember Dr. Vargo’s warning, about 25 percent of the time the procedure I underwent produces a pneumothorax from punching a needle through the chest and into the lung. Such a problem is not fun to fix if it does not naturally resolve. Nonetheless, the risk was clearly worth taking in my case. The chance of a lung cancer of a type different that my Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis was real. If I had a second type of cancer that was  not discovered before I started treatment for lymphoma, that would not be good. So, I undertook the risk willingly.

Guess what? Yep. A traumatic pneumothorax developed. As it turned out, it resolved itself without intervention about three hours after the procedure. So, I was allowed to leave UNMC and we drove home. As I prepared to respond to Doug and Scott, the words “unintended consequences” rang loudly in mind.

Doug’s Comment

I asked Doug to answer the rhetorical question of whether Colorado’s experiment might be a “win-win” for the cartels and Colorado.  Doug’s answer was a non-answer. He simply slipped the punch, lamely, in my view, writing that there were “[l]ots of uncertain market variables in play . . . .”   Come on, man!

Doug then threw out a bunch of (disjointed) distractions.  He wrote that I should:

consider that legal sellers now have a reason to want to rat out the illegal ones and cops have more resources to focus on scofflaws. (Also, if Feds fix banking problems, legal folks can take plastic and not just cash.). Moreover, if Colorado citizens think use/sale of pot should be legal, cartels selling pot there only are just shady businesses avoiding regulation, not evil doers. Finally, as the moonshine comment highlights, legal sellers can and should be able to provide a more consistent and predictable product.

Doug apparently does not want to address the question directly, and for good reason.  As the Monitor’s editorial points out, President Obama and others are justly worried that: “If we start having a situation where big corporations with lots of resources and distribution and marketing arms are suddenly going out there, peddling marijuana, then the levels of abuse that may take place are going to be higher[.]”  Doug, I think the cartels are far closer in skill, money and guile to big corporations than they are to the mere “scofflaws” recounted in your response. Don’t you?

Doug then asserts a shopworn non sequitur. That is, “Why do you think ending pot prohibition is any more idiotic, RGK, than was ending alcohol prohibition?” Well, unlike booze, this country never had a cultural tradition of smoking dope. Alcohol prohibition ran against the grain of our history, no matter the justifiable health reasons behind the policy. For over 1,000 years, our descendants consumed alcohol as a part of cherished rituals. As a result, trying to put a stopper in that bottle was doomed to failure. Not same, same with dope.

Finally, Doug asks: “Just curious what drives your disaffinity for free markets and free people.” My flip answer is that I am German. I am all for free markets and free people except when I’m not.

More seriously, I think culture matters.  As a matter of fact, I think a productive cultural tradition is central to good government and a healthy society.  By and large, our culture has produced good government and a healthy society. We have never before had a history or tradition of smoking dope. I don’t believe that a marijuana culture produces good government or a healthy country and that being true, our government ought not help to normalize such a culture.

In this vein, there is a real, present and specific danger that by normalizing dope consumption, we will harm a lot of young people. As the Monitor editorial points out, “With easier access to the drugs [there is] a subtle message that pot is not dangerous, . . . . According to the National Institutes of Health, 1 in 6 16-year-olds who tries marijuana will become addicted to it.”

Why in hell would you want to tell a kid that smoking dope is just fine?  “Do as I say, and not as I do,” won’t work. After all, in Colorado dope is legal, profitable, and helps support Colorado’s treasury. That being so, it is inevitable that adolescents will view pot consumption as perfectly acceptable. To the degree that legalizing marijuana increases consumption among young people, and that seems a given at least to some extent, Colorado’s experiment is not only idiotic but it is a public health disaster.

Scott’s Post

Unlike Doug, Scott takes the challenge head-on. That is, he explains in great detail why Colorado’s legalization experiment will not be a “win” for the cartels. Scott’s reasoning is not easy to dispute, but Scott’s analysis requires that certain economic predictions turn out to be true. Essentially, he argues that price pressure will ultimately move the cartels to other venues and other products.*  Scott may be right, but, as he acknowledges, that may take a good deal of time and, even then, Colorado’s fixation on driving price up by regulation and taxation gives the cartels plenty of room to profit in the short and medium term.**

Ultimately, here’s what concerns me the most.  Pretty quick, someone is going to get real serious about scaling up marijuana production, wholesale distribution and retail sales in the legal market place that Colorado has created. According to the Monitor, Obama and his Justice Department fear that legit corporations will see the profit potential and gradually move into the market in a big way. (When that happens, Birkenstocks will be out!)  If that fear is real, and I believe it is, there is simply no reason to think that the cartels will not find ways to invest in this legal business as well. Indeed, the members of the cartels are certainly the most experienced “businessmen” in the marijuana trade. Just as the Mafia found ways to invest in and profitably use legitimate business (gambling, trash hauling, construction), there is no reason to think that the cartels are any less adept at doing the same or similar things with the legal pot business in Colorado and elsewhere.***

So, Scott, you’re analysis makes much sense. But, if it were me, and unlike you, I would not bet against the cartels.

Conclusion

Both Doug and Scott may be right, and I sure could be wrong. After all, I started this little discussion after talking dope policy with a Colorado doc who held a scalpel to my chest while I was enjoying the mellow feeling induced by Versed and Fentanyl. How’s that for irony?

The foregoing admitted, I can’t get over my fear that Colorado’s pot experiment will end with unintended consequences that are not good.  But what the hell do I know?

RGK

*“The average drug trafficking organization” can “lose 90% of its profit and still be profitable[.]” OrianaTillman and Lowell Bergman, Do the math: Why the illegal drug business is thriving, PBS, Frontline Series. This makes it easy for cartels to operate in states where pot is legal but relatively expensive. In short, I have big worries that the price will never drop far enough to drive out the cartels.

**See also  Marijuana Legalization Raises Fears Of Drug Cartels, NPR Boston, (Friday, February 21, 2014).

***For a fascinating a look at the cartels’ investment in legitimate non-financial businesses, see Sergio Ferragut, Organized Crime, Illicit Drugs and Money Laundering: the United  States and Mexico, International Security Programme Paper 2012/01,  Chatham House, pp. 9-14 (2012) (non-financial sector businesses).

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