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Opinion: Banning cannabis sales does more harm than good

Molly Davis

In the first week of the state’s legal recreational marketplace, Michigan’s marijuana industry made an astounding $1.63 million in sales — and that’s from just the five dispensaries that have opened so far. Cannabis business owners’ spirits are high, but, understandably, some of them are struggling to keep up with Michiganians’ demand for products. Lit Provisioning Centers, for example, ran out of flower just two days after they opened.

This Aug. 22, 2019 file photo, shows medical marijuana plants during a media tour of the Curaleaf medical cannabis cultivation and processing facility in Ravena, N.Y.

It’s about time cannabis users aren’t frightened by the imminent threat of criminal charges over marijuana possession. But that doesn’t mean that Michigan isn’t still giving them trouble.

Through the votes of residents or through unilateral government action, many local governments continue to ban pot sales. That’s why demand is so high on the few operating dispensaries — almost 1,400 of Michigan’s 1,773 municipalities, including Detroit, have banned them. But it’s pushing recreational users in these districts to travel to a municipality where pot sales are legal. If they’re not doing that, they’re buying weed products from the black market.

The marijuana black market presents more danger today than it ever has before. Now, people aren’t just smoking flower. They’re consuming it through vaping devices in the form of oils — sparking a vaping crisis that has left 52 people dead.

The CDC confirmed the real source of the vaping crisis was illegally-sold marijuana vaping devices with harmful additives.

The tragic fatalities prompted folks to fly into a panic, calling for nationwide vaping bans until the CDC finally confirmed the real source of the problem: illegally-sold marijuana vaping devices with harmful additives. These products were produced and sold from illegal sources, and disguised as legitimate dispensary products with convincing packaging.

And this is the major reason why recreational marijuana legalization is so vital. The only way to stop people from buying sketchy underground vaping products is to provide them with safe alternatives. When safe options are only available in a few cities around the state, many will still resort to the black market. 

Local governments lose out, too. By banning weed sales, they’re willfully forgoing thousands of potential dollars, but discontinuing prosecution for selling legalized pot would inevitably save them money. Right now, they’re earning nothing by forbidding dispensaries. 

Municipalities with legal dispensaries will be paid handsomely by the marijuana tax collections. Ballot Proposal 1 allocates the first $20 million of tax dollars to research on the potential of marijuana in treating military veterans and preventing veteran suicide. The excess will be split among counties and municipalities with marijuana retailers, the education fund, and transportation fund. And the state estimates tax revenue will hit $163 million by 2023.

Residents who voted for marijuana legalization but against sales in their local district aren’t making much sense. It’s reasonable to wince at the idea of living near a marijuana shop with potheads constantly filtering in and out. But simple regulations on location and advertising can solve these problems without an outright business ban — culling outdoor advertising by preventing any pot-related billboards or signs, for example, could work. This can shield young people from seeing cannabis-related content while continuing to bring in tax revenue from legal adults who might benefit from the cannabis shops.

Banning marijuana sales means banning tax revenue. But, more importantly, it also means putting Michiganians at continued risk — for no real reason at all.

Molly Davis is a consumer freedom fellow and senior contributor at Young Voices. She is also a policy analyst at Libertas Institute, a Utah based think tank.