Marijuana Retail Stores: Do We Really Need Them?

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

In Washington State, which voted to legalize the commercial sale of cannabis, some local governments are using their zoning powers to fight the establishment of marijuana stores. The same has happened with California’s medical marijuana dispensaries. Some of this resistance is cultural, based on objections in principle to any legal cannabis sales. But some of it is practical, based on fears about neighborhood effects and costs to local government.

Those who campaign for state-level marijuana legalization on the grounds that states ought to be allowed to go their own ways in the face of federal prohibition, have a problem arguing at the same time that localities shouldn’t be allowed to opt out of state-level legalization. Many states are still “local option” when it comes to alcohol sales.

To someone trying to quit [using marijuana], simply passing by the store and seeing the sign is a temptation needing effortful resistance, and eventually that resistance may wear down.-Mark Kleiman

The moral status of selling cannabis aside, real local burdens exist for having such stores, just as they do for having liquor stores. Such stores can be sources of disorderly behavior; they can be places where those too young to buy legally find older people willing to buy for them; and their very presence serves as marketing for the product. To someone trying to quit, simply passing by the store and seeing the sign is a temptation needing effortful resistance, and eventually that resistance may wear down. In the case of alcohol, we know that the density of stores contributes to the level of alcohol abuse at a local level.

So why not allow home delivery? Doing so would avoid both the neighborhood objections and the need for local zoning approval. A single vendor could supply the whole state, rather than only those within easy driving distance. This would mean better access to products not in widespread demand (e.g., high-CBD oils) and better general access for the elderly, for those with limited mobility, and for people living in rural areas.

Delivery could either be a companion to brick-and-mortar retail stores or an alternative to it. In fact, why have retail storefronts been selling cannabis in the first place? Impulse purchasing should be discouraged, and neighborhoods shouldn’t have to put up with businesses that act as consistently bad neighbors.

Of course, communities would want a system in place that would make it at least as hard for minors to buy as it would be in a store, but that’s not hard: require the driver to deliver directly to the customer, to see a driver’s license (checking both age and address), and to take a photo of that license that could later be checked against DMV records to detect the use of fake IDs.

Of course, communities would want a system in place that would make it at least as hard for minors to buy as it would be in a store…-Mark Kleiman

“Delivery only” might sacrifice some opportunities for point-of-sale efforts at abuse prevention or harm reduction, but those same goals could be achieved by designing retail websites effectively. There could even be a mandatory “cooling-off” period (say, twelve hours) to discourage impulse buying.

A noteworthy consideration would be security. As long as cannabis remains an all-cash business, the driver is a robbery target. Even if stores take credit cards, the driver still has valuable inventory worth stealing. But that’s something the vendors could work out; it’s not as if it’s cheap to robbery-proof cannabis stores.

It’s not obvious that a delivery system would be better than a storefront system, or even a good addition to brick-and-mortar stores. But the problem is worth thinking about, rather than just assuming that whatever system we now have in place for selling alcohol ought to be used to sell cannabis.
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