The core twin evils of capitalism are exploitation on the one hand, and exclusion on the other. We are either integrated into the labor market where we are compensated less than we produce in order to enrich others – the Marxist meaning of exploitation. Or, we are excluded from the production process altogether. One response to this sad economic constitution was the French idea of an Économie sociale: the creation of diverse economic sectors that try to avoid these evils. For example, worker owned cooperatives end with exploitation, since there is no owner to enrich itself with the labor of others. On the exclusion side, I have always been a big proponent of social economy employment: creating jobs for people that would normally not get them since they cannot competitively do the work, either through subsidies or forfeiting profit maximization. This caters to people who can do the work in the economic sense of producing a good or service, but in a for-profit scenario would always be a worse choice than other workers. This includes people with disabilities, ex-convicts, refugees, or those who for whatever reason reside as an isolated corner of the labor market. In this essay I will propose a most daring new sector for this type of social employment: the production, processing and distribution of weed within a government monopoly.
Hun? Of course. The legalization of weed for commercial sale is an apple ready to drop. It has picked up considerable momentum on the American continent, starting with Uruguay in 2013, followed by Canada legalizing recreational use in 2018. Several states in the U.S. have also started to legalize the sale and use of cannabis in various capacities. The situation in Mexico was ambiguous, with various court’s ruling against criminalizing it, although it is still not officially legalized. However the new government expressed the intention to take further steps towards the legalization of cannabis for recreational use. The question IF cannabis should be legalized forms a debate of its own, centered around the various health or security benefits. This essay will sidestep that debate completely, drawing attention to the much more interesting question of HOW it should be legalized. I claim that the feasibility of legalization ultimately depends on its implementation, since a lot more stakeholders are involved than just the users in the unlocking such a large previously criminalized market. In a standard scenario the use of cannabis is decriminalized, and the production and sale is left to private initiative, usually under some form of regulation. I will argue that my state-owned implementation is superior to the free market initiative on all grounds that are used in the debate on legalization, and overall more democratic. Below are my arguments:
– First of all, we must consider the state itself (and thus the taxpayers) as a stakeholder. Nationalizing the production and distribution of cannabis provides a unique opportunity for establishing a profitable public service. Many public services present a net loss to the government and have to be paid for from general tax revenue. Cannabis is a cash crop par excellence. Especially in a state-monopoly situation, where the normal ethical concern for low prices in public goods does not play a role. Mexico has a troubled history of privatizing its most profitable public services far below their value to the compañeros of the Mafia De Poder. The word ‘nationalizing’ creates instant panic in those circles (and the media outlets they own, and the aspiring petit bourgeois that follow them), but with cannabis we have an unique opportunity for a completely painless nationalization: the state creates the market at the same instance it monopolizes it. The only dispossessed actors are the criminal groups previously responsible for the trafficking of this drug. The alternative is to privatize the market, but submit it to heavy taxation. However, ownership will always be able to generate more profit than taxes, going by the dubious assumption that the latter will be paid in the first place. The choice is simple: who do we want to benefit from the profit? Certain agro-multinationals or former criminal groups? Maybe the imagined independent family business that will be no doubt invoked to sell the idea to the advantage of the aforementioned. Or the patients of public hospitals, the elderly waiting on their pensions, the teachers in elementary schools? We should not pass on this opportunity of much needed funding in times of austerity.
– The next stakeholder are the workers. My proposal is centered around the production, processing and distribution of cannabis as a social economy sector. This means that the government would hire groups that stand little chance on the competitive labor market, and are now dependent on charity, family, support programs or criminal activities. People with learning difficulties, for example. People with minor physical impairments that are slower but functional, for example. People formerly imprisoned for exactly these drug-related activities that are now severely limited in that chances to find work, for example. Or whoever has productive capacities but requires an adjusted work environment. The trick with social economy is that by letting go of the profit motive, the company can afford to hire less productive (or more) workers. As I argued in an article on social restaurants, social economy employment works best in niches that either justify subsidies for broader social purpose (the construction of social housing), or where higher prices create no competitive disadvantage. Cannabis is ideal for the latter reason. Although this service would be for profit (see previous point on public finance), it would not be for maximal-profit. Since the government is the employer, they can guarantee livable wages at the same time. The scale of the sector and the diverse jobs involved (agriculture, guarding, processing, transport, sales, side services, management, etc.) offer various learning opportunities for people to improve their skills and work towards social reintegration.
– The next set of arguments resolves around security. Legalizing cannabis can have security benefits by taking this sector out of criminality, in theory reducing crime and cutting into the profits of organized criminal groups. However, if this works or not largely depends on actually keeping cartels out of the production chain. This is a naïve assumption in a country where cartels even rob or extort farmers for something as innocent as lemons and avocados, and threaten shopkeepers to sell certain cigarettes. Only the monopoly of violence of the government can, in our reality, guarantee a safe work environment that keeps organized crime at bay. While especially small farmers are liable to robbery, growing cannabis near for example military bases offers an attractive option. Similar arguments can be made when it comes to transport and sales. The monopoly also has no grey zone, allowing the police to assertively pursue crackdowns on alternative sales.
– Nationalizing cannabis would
allow for democratic control over the criteria of distribution. Regarding
health, it allows (easier) public quality and safety control over the product:
the relative harmlessness of weed (to the user and his environment) depends on
the THC value, as well as other products it might be mixed with. It would also
allow the democratic enforcement of criteria of who to sell to, and how much.
The combination of these factors makes it much easier for the government to
control the health risks and stimulate the health benefits raised by opposing
actors in the debate on legalization. Furthermore, and often forgotten, it
would give centralized control over where
it is distributed. Having lived for years as a student in a street full of weed
shops in the Netherlands, I can testify that stoned people are fun, but not all
day every day. The push towards legalizing cannabis might be met with strong
‘not in my backyard’ criticism, and doing this in a nationalized context allows
governments along with other stakeholders to strategically plan the spaces of
distribution and consumption. This further adds to the previous point on
The arguments laid out above are of course open
to criticism. The very idea of nationalizing things turns many people off, who
instinctively prefer if the government just let ‘us’ do it – yet this ‘us’ in
practice often means foreign multinationals. If the idea of not doing it
yourself it wholly unswallowable, exceptions for not commercial home growing
could be made. While open to criticism, my proposal yields the highest total societal
benefits for diverse groups. Even its ‘paternalistic’ sides help to smooth the
concerns of those who oppose legalization altogether, making this daring
proposal in practice maybe the most realistic.
 Ghys, T. (2017). Exploring the Potential of Belgium’s Social Restaurants for Poverty Reduction. Japan Social Innovation Journal, 7(1).