Canadian pot and the lessons of opium

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Apparently Canada has legalized pot. The New Republic is speculating that they may find it hard to get an official distribution system to replace the old illegal one

I agree that this is a concern, but I don’t think de-Ba’athification is a good historical analogy. The old illegal sellers will no doubt want to keep selling, but if no producers want to sell to them and no buyers want to buy from them that hardly matters. Colonial opium monopolies in Asia (and to a lesser extent in China) faced exactly the same problem, How to get people to buy the legal opium when there was an already existing illegal system? This was particularly difficult since in the early period the legal system was run by tax farmers (mostly Chinese) who were in a perfect place to slip illegal stuff into the legal distribution channel. This is a problem with booze as well. Who better to sell untaxed kegs of beer than a legal beer distributor? Today of course that is not a problem, the two channels are, at the distribution level anyway, mostly separate. Few legal sellers of booze or cigarettes are going to risk loosing a valuable license for a tiny profit.

I suspect that if our friends Up North want to really get rid of the illegal market they will need to really legalize pot. From what I know of legal pot in the US 1  it is distributed in special dispensaries (which there are not many of) you need to roll your own and show quite a bit of ID. Buying a bunch and then splitting it with your friends at the Chamber of Commerce or your church group is, technically, illegal. This is not that different from the Asian opium systems in the 20th century, where they drug was still being sold by state-approved channels, but was seen as problematic for moral, public health and public relations reasons.

This is no way to replace a black market distribution system. When you can buy a pack of pre-rolled joints at every Tim Horton’s -then- there will no reason for anyone to use the black market. What I am guessing we will get is a system more like China in the New Policies period. -Legal dispensaries for those rich enough to afford them and go through the hassle, and a system of semi-tolerated illegal sales with occasional arrests for everyone else.


Rush, James R. Opium to Java: Revenue Farming and Chinese Enterprise in Colonial Indonesia, 1860–1910. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990. is the classic work on this. I have not read

Sasges, Professor Gerard, David P. Chandler, and Rita Smith Kipp. Imperial Intoxication: Alcohol and the Making of Colonial Indochina. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2017.  but that might be even more relevant.

  1. which is not much. Maybe I should go to AAS this year. 

1 Comment

  1. In Seattle, at least, “legal” pot has seen pretty wide adoption. Weed shops are in most neighborhoods, and you don’t need any more identification than you’d need to go to a bar. Driving around the state you see billboards for dispensaries even in very rural areas. I have no familiarity with the illegal market, but my general sense (from a urban, white-collar view) is that few bother. Maybe there’s a price premium on the legal stuff, but it doesn’t seem to be enough of one to overcome the convenience factor, let alone the relative product quality assurance.

    It’s certainly still possible that illegal producers are getting on the shelves of outwardly legal shops, especially in outlying areas I’d imagine, but I haven’t seen any news coverage of shops busted carrying unlicensed/untaxed product.

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