It’s often been noted that regulations can impose larger relative costs on small businesses and can serve to protect incumbent firms from new competitors. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein noted that new regulations created a “moat” around his firm:
That all industries are being disrupted to some extent by new entrants coming in from technology. We, again, being, you know, technology-oriented ourselves, try to disrupt ourselves and try to figure out what’s the new thing, and come up with new platforms, new forms of distribution, new products. But in some ways, and there are some parts of our business, where it’s very hard for outside entrants to come in, disrupt our business, simply because we’re so regulated. You’ll hear people in our industry talk about the regulation. And they talk about it, you know, with a sigh: Look at the burdens of regulation. But in some cases, the burdensome regulation acts as a bit of a moat around our business.
The Washington Post reports on a new example: the legalized marijuana market in California. Libertarians have long urged the legalization of marijuana and other drugs. Certainly I expect better results from a legal regime where people are not arrested for buying, selling, or using marijuana. But governments can’t just repeal laws and stop arresting people; instead, they prefer to set up a regime of taxes and regulation. And that’s having an effect on the small marijuana growers in the state’s “Emerald Triangle.” As Scott Wilson reports in the Post:
Humboldt County, traditionally shorthand for outlaw culture and the great dope it produces, is facing a harsh reckoning. Every trait that made this strip along California’s wild northwest coast the best place in the world to grow pot is now working against its future as a producer in the state’s $7 billion-a-year marijuana market.
A massive industry never before regulated is being tamed by laws and taxation, characteristically extensive in this state. Nowhere is this process upending a culture and economy more than here in Humboldt, where tens of thousands of people who have been breaking the law for years are being asked to hire accountants, tax lawyers and declare themselves to a government they have famously distrusted.
Wilson estimates that “Fewer than 1 in 10 of the county’s estimated 12,500 marijuana farmers are likely to make it in the legal trade….Less than 1 percent of the estimated 69,000 growers statewide have received a permit to farm marijuana since the beginning of the year.”
As many experts on drug prohibition predicted, prices are dropping in the legalized market. But for Humboldt and neighboring counties, the price drop is happening at a time when small growers most need the money to begin complying with California’s stiff regulatory demands. At the same time, the state’s licensing of retail shops has been slow, leaving a lot of legal product without a legal place to be sold.
Marijuana from Humboldt that used to sell for $1,200 a pound three years ago is now selling at a 75 percent discount. State officials and many growers predict the vast overproduction will be curtailed by the new rules, likely by consolidating cultivation among large agriculture companies that can afford the regulations.
Humboldt countians feared this sort of effect. Wilson notes the history:
The population grew and changed in the 1970s, when disaffected hippies migrated north, a “back to the land” exodus from the Bay Area that brought a contempt for government ethos here. Marijuana emerged as the county’s next-generation commodity.
There is no reason people chose Humboldt to grow marijuana other than that Humboldt, as a society, allowed it to be grown. The same was true for neighboring Trinity and Mendocino counties. Collectively, the three are known as the “Emerald Triangle,” a globally renowned pot paradise.
And so in 2014 a lot of Emerald Triangle growers opposed Proposition 64, the legalization initiative, because they foresaw that it would lead to bigger companies squeezing out small growers.
It’s definitely a good thing to stop arresting people for marijuana. But once again regulations are going to serve to concentrate an industry and thus concentrate wealth. Chances are, a few people are going to get rich in the California marijuana industry, and fewer small growers are going to earn a modest but comfortable income. Just one of the many ways that regulation contributes to inequality.