An interesting paper was published recently in the International Journal of Drug Policy with the snappy title of ‘A “not for profit” regulatory model for legal recreational cannabis: Insights from the regulation of gaming machine gambling in New Zealand’ by Chris Wilkins. In the annoying way of these things, this excellent paper is not on open access, but  you can see the abstract here.

The thinking behind this idea is to prevent a commercial supply industry making huge profits from problem consumers in the way that the tobacco, alcohol and gambling industries do. An act of Parliament in New Zealand twenty years ago attempted to do just this by allowing local authorities to place restrictions on gambling shops and by redirecting the profits to harm reduction / prevention initiatives. The paper is worth a read if you can get hold of it, or you can see a pretty good alternative version on Scoop.nz .The paper looks at how successful the act has been, where its weaknesses are and considers how this could be applied to the cannabis trade.

The point of interest for us is perhaps now is a good time to think about the way we would like to see cannabis being sold and to think carefully about the good and bad points of various regimes. In particular, is the fully commercial model developing in the US really the one we would want here?

In the US states that have so far legalised we’re seeing the emergence of a fully blown commercial trade. This has a number of downsides beyond those discussed in the paper about the exploitation of problem users. It’s worth thinking about how this regime has worked in other areas of life and there is non better for than to look at beer brewing. About 40 years ago we saw the development of the “Big six” brewers in the UK, perhaps the most (in)famous was Watneys.

Watneys and the other big brewers grew in the late 60’s and early 70’s by buying up hundreds of small, local brewers around the country, closing them down and using their outlets to sell their beers. The impact of this was twofold: Before the advent of the “big six” brewers just about every town of any size had its own brewery and its own range of distinctive local ales. As the small breweries closed the choice of beer available was greatly reduced to the point where the same few brands were sold almost everywhere.

At the same time traditional methods of brewing gave way to industrial production, forcing a low quality (actually quite vile) product onto the consumer. Perhaps the most reviled was Watneys Red, a product that became the byword for mediocrity. How did they manage to replace long established beers with such a trash product? The answer of course, was that they advertised it heavily, linked it to popular culture and used the power of the brand  identity.

This is process of consolidation never stopped and today a very few major producers supply most of the beer – not just to this country, but to the world. These mega brewers are very rich and powerful and have used this power to resist measures designed to reduce the harmful impact of the drug they sell. Indeed the brewers industry lobby organisation The Portman Group has become very powerful, even to the extent of being given oversight into the new “drug free” nightclub economy a decade or so back.

So what of the results? Big business has done nothing for consumer choice and arguably nothing to reduce the harm caused by alcohol, why should cannabis be different? Instead a multi national industry virtually dictates alcohol consumption patters over much of the world. Most of its profits of course are made through the minority of problem drinkers, the people who drink most of the product. The same might be about to happen to cannabis and that isn’t something I want to see.

It’s worth noting that domination by corporations isn’t limited to beer, just look at the dominance of such brands as McDonalds or KFC in the food sector, both built on the back of branding and advertising.

How can this “Big cannabis” be prevented? Various regimes have been proposed, including that seen in Uruguay where cannabis is sold only through government approved outlets and grown only by government approved farmers. Canada is about to unleash some very restrictive regimes to keep the cannabis trade under strict control. These regimes might work, time will tell on that and there are some good arguments in favour of a tightly regulated regime in terms of protecting vulnerable people, ensuring a good product etc.

However, there is a very simple way to keep big business out and that is to ban all forms of advertising including branding other than at the point of sale. By banning branding I mean logos, stylised packaging and so on both for the product and the shops. So the way I would like to see cannabis sold is simply as cannabis, identified by the growers name and the strain with everything written in plain text sold in shops identified as shops that sell cannabis. in this way the focus will be on the product, not on the package image.

A legal trade has to provide a supply of good enough quality and quantity to satisfy demand at a price low enough to compete effectively with the illegal trade. That doesn’t mean it has to be cheaper than the black market, but it does have to supply a consistently high quality product. People who want cannabis will find the shops and buy from them and word of mouth will see the better outlets flourish. There will always be a demand for cannabis, there is absolutely no need to advertise it nor to encourage people to start using it.

A totally non-commercial regime for cannabis would seem to satisfy most demands. From the consumers point of view it would create the widest choice and the highest quality while addressing concerns about “big cannabis” becoming the new “big tobacco” or “big alcohol”.

The big irony in all this is that warning of the threat of “Big marijuana” is the mantra of SAM – the US prohibition campaign. Big Tobacco 2.0 Big Marijuana is a SAM scare campaign built around the “Watneyisation” of the cannabis trade. Of course, they have a point, which they twist to become an argument against legalisation. This is the problem we see developing; the law reform debate is polarising into legal = free for all commercialised and prohibition = preventing commercialisation. The real world just isn’t like that and there are a whole rainbow of possibilities for a legal cannabis trade.

So the recent paper from New Zealand is welcome and it really should be in the public domain. We need to start talking about these and other issues.