California’s Marijuana Industry: Ethical Issues

I’ve blogged about the insurance industry, the mining industry, the auto industry, even the donut industry. But the pot industry? Yes, it’s time.

From the Sacramento Bee: Growth of California’s Pot Industry is Good News for Unions

As Californians prepare to vote on a November ballot initiative that would expand legalization to recreational pot use, labor groups see the potential for perhaps tens of thousands of unionized jobs.

United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 5, which has 32,000 members in California working in trades including the grocery and food processing industries, began organizing marijuana “bud tenders,” greenhouse workers, packagers and laboratory technicians last spring….

So, here a budding industry, built around a controversial product that is illegal in most jurisdictions. There’s plenty of grass-root support for broader legalization (both for medicinal and recreational use). But there may be enough opposition to blunt the enthusiasm of law-makers about sudden moves. The support of politically-powerful unions is another ethically-significant factor — as is the potential capture of this new industry by unions.

This is such a rich and interesting story that there’s too much in it for me to try to hash it out by myself without resorting to quick, potted answers. So here are a handful of questions to seed the discussion. I’ll let you weed the good from the bad.

  • Ryan Grim reports that “The teachers union, citing the revenue that could be raised for the state, is also backing the initiative.” Is that sufficient reason? You don’t have to be an anti-pot puritan to worry about anything that might (inadvertently) encourage use of pot by school-age kids.
  • What business ethics issues are faced by producers and sellers of pot in the illegitimate parts of the drug industry? What new issues will the newly-legitimized industry face?
  • What CSR-type responsibilities does the (expanding) legal marijuana industry have?
  • Why are California Beer & Beverage Distributors lobbying against the proposed change? (See useful discussion over at Marginal Revolution).
  • What sorts of regulations should the industry seek? What motives will be foremost in industry’s mind in his regard — protecting revenues? protecting its image? protecting consumers?
  • Will the other drug industry — the pharmaceutical industry — move into this line of business? Why or why not?
  • Is the unionization of this industry generally a good or bad thing? Unionization improves the lot of workers, but also tends to raise prices. Since unionization itself is controversial, let’s ask it this way: is the case for unionization stronger or weaker, with regards to the marijuana industry?

I’ll open the floor for discussion.

4 comments so far

  1. EB on

    “Will the other drug industry — the pharmaceutical industry — move into this line of business? Why or why not?”
    I think the answer is “yes,” because the pot industry could be a big money maker and it could be the camel’s nose under the tent to the legalization of “hard”er drugs that pharmaceutical companies have an even more intuitive claim to.

    My concern is that government regulation will act to over-corporatize the pot industry, if it emerges, and that invocations of CSR will be at least in part a pretext to expand the role corporations play in the actual governance of people and their bodies. (I’m alluding to Foucault’s analyses of biopower, governmentality, and neoliberalism here.)

  2. Tom Herrnstein on

    It seems to me that the case for unionization in legal marijuana is stronger partly for the reason you bring up: it will make the product more expensive and that is good thing. You want the cost to be at least somewhat prohibitive to curb demand, and if unionization helps, great.

    Another reason is unionization could theoretically help quality control. I would think that as a society if we are going to endorse the option of legally using a new recreational drug, we would want as many influences as possible along the way to make the product as consistent and safe as it can be.

    Finally, unionization itself may be controversial, but considering the problem of income disparity in the US (a problem that is just starting to get a lot of mainstream attention) the more new moderate-paying jobs the better.

  3. Chris MacDonald on

    Thanks, Tom. But I wonder if your 2 suggestions conflict. You want to curb consumption, but you want to ensure quality. Maybe letting quality slide would be a good thing?

    As for unions, it’s worth looking at some of the work on the net effect of unionization on economic growth. As a starting point, see, e.g., this blog entry:
    What do unions do for economic performance?

    • Tom Herrnstein on

      In many instances poor quality would lead to less consumption, but I’m not sure that applies to certain products we consume for pleasure. Personally I’m much more content with one quality beer and so I’ll stop at one and feel satisfied (as opposed to Bud Lights or whatever, where I’ll drink twice as much to feel like I’m getting the experience of enjoying drinking — and I don’t mean the intoxicating effect I mean the taste). Or pick whatever you like: eating less of moderately good chocolate will satisfy you more than twice as many M&M’s for example. The ethical issue of not abusing the product is then in play (not becoming a slave to over-indulge in a quality pleasure), but I think that lower consumption and higher quality can go together.

      As far as unions, I agree that economic growth is very important, as all things being equal it allows more people to live well. But of course always choosing economic growth over other things (environmental quality, justice, etc.) can be the wrong choice. So the obvious question about unions is: if they do effect economic growth negatively, how much and what do you get in return? Theoretically, if unionization resulted in slightly less economic growth but also resulted in significantly less income disparity, I would be for it. And by the way, I personally think income disparity is a serious issue not because of egalitarian or fairness concerns of who deserves what (although these may be important issues as well); rather, income disparity is a serious problem because I think it leads to a unstable, unhealthy society.

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