Baptists, Bootleggers, and Marijuana Prohibition

Public choice economist Bruce Yandle famously developed the concept of a “baptist-bootlegger coalition” to describe situations in which regulation is supported by a strange bedfellow alliance of groups who favor it for narrowly self-interested reasons and those who support it out of moral or ideological considerations. The paradigmatic example was the way in which Baptists (who opposed alcohol for religious reasons) and bootleggers (who wanted its sale to be illegal in order to protect their business interests) supported Prohibition in the 1920s. It looks like a similar alliance is emerging to oppose marijuana legalization:

Pot legalization activists are running into an unexpected and ironic opponent in their efforts to make cannabis legal: Big Marijuana.

Medical marijuana is a billion-dollar industry — legal in 18 states, including California, Nevada, Oregon and Maine — and like any entrenched business, it’s fighting to keep what it has and shut competitors out. Dispensary owners, trade associations and groups representing the industry are deeply concerned — and in some cases actively fighting — ballot initiatives and legislation that could wreck their business model.

That pits them against full legalization advocates, who have been hoping to play off wins at the ballot box last fall in Colorado and Washington state that installed among the most permissive pot laws in the world. Activists are hoping to pass full legalization measures in six more states by 2016….

This spring, the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine joined the usual coalition of anti-pot forces of active law-enforcement groups, social conservatives and public health advocates to oppose a state bill that would legalize possession of small quantities of the drug. The medical marijuana lobby argued that criminal organizations would start smuggling pot to neighboring states, and they complained that the bill’s tax plan was unworkable and unfair.

“The main objections came from the fact that the bill was not built around Maine’s medical marijuana industry,” Paul McCarrier, a lobbyist for the medical marijuana caregivers group, told POLITICO. “Philosophically, we’re not opposed to the decriminalization of marijuana, but the devil is in the details.”

As the Politico article quoted above notes, many medical marijuana providers do support full legalization. But those who oppose it seem to be doing so primarily because it would threaten their business interests by breaking their monopoly of legal marijuana sales in those states where medical marijuana dispensaries are legal, but others are still forbidden to sell or cultivate pot.