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Medical Marijuana Illustrates the Paradox of Regulation

Wayne Whitehurst March 13, 2021

Medical marijuana is big business. Some thirty-six states and the District of Columbia already allow for medical cannabis. It is probably only a matter of time for the remaining fourteen states. And yet, thorny regulatory issues remain. If nothing else, the controversy that is medical marijuana has served to illustrate the paradox of regulation.

Some states, like Utah for example, are highly regulated. Doctors must go through specialized training to be certified as qualified medical providers. Patients must obtain medical cannabis cards to use the drug legally. Other states are considerably less stringent. For example, Colorado and California have completely decriminalized marijuana.

In the midst of these two extremes are differences in regulation. For example, the New York Times says that Oregon requires all recreational marijuana products be tested for certain hazardous chemicals. The same tests are not required for medical marijuana products.

  • One Side Says Deregulate

The paradox of regulation is that it can never make people happy. Where medical cannabis is concerned, one side wants full deregulation. They want the federal government to either decriminalize marijuana or reschedule it under a different classification. They want to be able to obtain marijuana as easily as aspirin.

Having no regulations at all is the holy grail of some people on the extreme end of deregulation. The thing is this: almost nothing in modern life is left unaffected by regulation. Even if a product or service is not regulated from the consumer’s point of view, there are usually regulations defining how that product or service gets to the consumer.

For example, alcohol production and distribution are heavily regulated across United States. Regulations are ostensibly put in place to protect consumers. Some would argue they only exist to create revenue sources for government. At any rate, a library of regulations control how alcohol gets from grain to the consumer’s hand.

  • The Other Side Says Regulate

The other side of the deregulation coin is the regulation side. Just as there are those who want medical marijuana completely regulated, there are others who want it tightly controlled. Using Utah as an example again, there are some in the state legislature wanting controls to be as tight as possible for as long as possible.

Utah has only licensed fourteen medical cannabis dispensaries thus far. Deseret Wellness operates two of them; one in Provo and the other in Park City. Their two locations are among the seven that currently serve Utahns. What about the other seven? They have not yet opened. It remains to be seen if they ever will.

The point of this is to say that Utah’s law is restrictive enough to hamper access to medical cannabis. Some do not think that’s a bad thing. They think that making medical cannabis difficult to get reduces the likelihood of abuse.

  • A Slippery Path

Regulation is a paradox because it creates a slippery path in either direction. Complete deregulation opens the door to all sorts of activities that civilized society would frown on. It is a slippery slope to completely deregulate marijuana. We only need to look at alcohol as an example of what could happen.

On the other hand, asking the government to create regulation creates an entirely different slippery slope. Regulation is an open door to more regulation. Lawmakers and regulators alike have a tendency of working and living in a vacuum, creating regulations with adverse effects they will never experience themselves.

In the end, there is no way to win. Regulation is a paradox that only creates unhappy people. The question is how unhappy we are willing to be.