Marijuana is just a business just like any other

The drugs business has certain significant characteristics. The illegality is an obvious starting point and disputes between the players are settled with violence, not lawyers.

As several news reports recently show, marijuana business seems to be much like any other business. And so we have several groups and politicians including a minister telling the public that the time has come to legalise marijuana, at least for medical purposes.

Actually this was first picked up during an interview with Natural Resources Minister Dr Xavier Jayakumar whose personal view is that if it’s got medicinal value, then it can be a controlled item that can be used by the Ministry of Health for prescription purposes.

The irony comes from looking at who is supporting the legalisation of marijuana which is Xavier himself, not the persons in charge of health – Datuk Seri Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad or his deputy, Dr Lee Boon Chye.

I try not to think whether Xavier or the ministers have any great insight into what other Malaysians should be thinking and allowed to do with marijuana.

Of course, there are a few legal problems that need to be ironed out with regards to this, but the idea is that we are suggesting something which is both eminently sensible and entirely illegal – the full legalisation of marijuana in Malaysia.

To restate the earlier point, marijuana business is recognisably a business, with many of the same problems as others. That it’s not regulated the same way as other businesses doesn’t hide this basic fact.

Although it does rather lead to the conclusion that perhaps it ought to be regulated as other businesses, it involves an argument over legalisation. And that’s about it really. While this will take a while, medical marijuana may have provided some evidence already.

The legalisation is not meant to allow people to obtain marijuana for purposes other than medical, but it is generally believed that this will happen, anyway.

The marijuana market is expected to hold up better, but whether it will or will not depends on how much the market is purely medicinal and how much addiction. Estimates differ wildly on the point of whether most heroin users are junkies or not?

The drug itself is almost entirely harmless, and being banged up in a prison or sentenced to death for having possession of a joint or two is going to do far more harm to your life than smoking cigarettes.

During a forum on the abolition of the death penalty early this year, Professor Datuk Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the Universiti of Malaya, questioned Malaysia’s stance when dealing with issues related to cigarettes and narcotics. A carton of cigarettes is much more dangerous than 200g of marijuana, but owning 200g would get you the death penalty.

Those who don’t share that Malaysia’s stance is extreme should realise that the majority of the damage done by drugs actually comes from their illegality.

Most overdoses, for example, happen because illegal drug purity is unknown and thus it’s all too easy to take too much. This is actually logical. It’s nearly impossible to overdose on marijuana.

What can kill here is the dosage of the drug, and dosage is the very thing that full legalisation would take care of.

People don’t deliberately try to kill themselves by taking marijuana, opioids and so on. In fact they get killed by not knowing how much of which drug they are taking.

Banning marijuana drives sales into the black market where criminals do the selling. And criminals are more likely to settle their disagreements with violence.

They don’t perform the reliable quality controls that legal drug sellers must do to please their customers. On the black market, customers take their chances because the seller is likely to offer harder drugs for sale.

Then when things go wrong anti-marijuana groups cry out “See? Drug markets are unsafe!”

Full legalisation of marijuana should be a great deal compared to illegal marijuana. But the really important point to me about legal supply for profit is that it gives people a reason to be concerned about quality, marking, labelling and retailing.

Having a brand that is known to provide what is actually being sought is of value to the producer. So legally being allowed to supply will result in the creation of those brands that can be trusted.

Legal supply, as opposed to just legal use, will contribute to quality of supply.

And what’s wrong with profit? In order to make a profit providing something you have to do it more efficiently than other people. Furthermore, you must create value while you do so. That profit you record is the value that you have created. Once it’s been distributed retail, that’s it. The legality problem is over. So, well done there, well done.

However, to make the legalisation works, we must overcome all the regulatory and financial hurdles. Assume total legality and then what happens? Well, the first thing I would expect to see is the entry of entrepreneurs, investors and companies into the market. I also imagine that we most certainly would have someone tapping into the global market to source production.

But if legalisation is just an excuse to increase regulatory burdens for entrepreneurs and tax consumers excessively, then no one stands to make any money at all.

Setting up a simple shop is hard enough for regular businesses. When a product like marijuana is involved, surely the process becomes all the more complicated.

If legal businesses are to be subjected to rigid requirements and regulations that their black market competitors escape, then the legalisation is meaningless.

If there is free entry and exit from marijuana industry, we cannot advocate anti-drug enforcement because it leads to exit which in turn leads to higher profits for those who remain, and the exit continues until the profits are high enough to compensate the risks.

But then Dr Lee said if there is enough information to show it is safe and effective for use for certain conditions, then the ministry will be able to consider it.

We in the Hayekian tradition called this information that is specific to the individual as “the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place”.

Here’s where I would apply Hayek, that scientific knowledge which is largely the product of decentralised activity.

We do better at science when the government does not centralise it and does not get to say which leads should be followed and which ones should not or who should plant on which land and who should not, which brings us to the legalisation of marijuana.

We won’t know until further research is done. The point is that, by letting researchers test the drug by trial and error, we raise the odds of their finding effectiveness and uses.

Let me ask: Under which system will we get more testing for the possibly beneficial effects of marijuana? One where marijuana is legal or one where is it illegal?

To see the problem with it, substitute marijuana with natural gas.

If natural gas has been illegal for decades, do you think the government would have allowed people to sell a substance that is invisible, has no odor, and blows up when ignited?

(Friedrich August Hayek (1899-1992) was an Austrian economist. He shared the 1974 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences with Gunnar Myrdal)

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.