Going to Pot

Originally published in Utah Business.

I read with interest New York Times writer David Brooks’ recent column on the legalization of recreational marijuana use in Colorado. In typical Brooks fashion, he “smoked” the issue by pointing out that legalizing weed makes it “a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be.”

I agree, and it got me thinking about the economic development advantage Utah will now have over Colorado because of its recent actions. The legalization of marijuana will make it harder for the Centennial State to be the kind of state it wants to be.

Utah and Colorado have many similarities and differences. We are both in the Intermountain West. We both function in the same time zone and feature flagship universities in the PAC 12. We both have an incredible natural environment. Skiing, hiking, backpacking, mountain biking and river running are second nature to many in both states. Both states have dynamic and diverse economies and offer great life quality to residents.

But we also have differences. Politically, Colorado leans blue and Utah is decidedly red. Colorado fronts the flatlands of the Great Plains. Utah fronts the Great Basin and also has the most amazing red rock on earth. Colorado’s population is much larger than Utah’s, with 2.3 million more residents. What Utah lacks in size it makes up with accessibility. Unlike Denver, in Salt Lake City you really can have a “cabin in the city.” Our airport is 15 minutes from downtown and 45 minutes from multiple ski resorts. Colorado … well, let’s just say I still haven’t figured out why they put their airport in Nebraska.

The people of Colorado have now embraced another difference—the legalization of recreational marijuana use by adults ages 21 and older. This acceptance of marijuana is a big difference and one that, I think, will advantage Utah.

Striving for Excellence

The legalization of pot has lots of economic overtones, but none as significant as the economic development repercussions. Shortly after Colorado legalized pot, I heard a seasoned business leader with businesses in both states comment on the detrimental effect Colorado’s actions would have on its economy. With legalization, prices will fall. As prices fall and the legal barriers are removed, consumption will rise. Business leaders cringe at the thought of a workforce that is high.

Marijuana is defined by the Controlled Substances Act as a Schedule I substance. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy warns that legalization increases the availability and use of illicit drugs and poses significant health and safety risks, particularly for young people. The same office reports marijuana use is addictive and can lead to “compulsive drug seeking and abuse despite the known harmful effects upon functioning in the context of family, school, work and recreational activities.”

It makes you wonder what Colorado is thinking.

I know there are lots of studies about this issue, some pointing out compelling reasons why society should soften its stance on marijuana. Proponents of legalization point to the tax revenues that could be used for a valuable public purpose, the benefit of keeping drug money in the U.S. economy instead of sending it to international crime gangs, or the fact that marijuana imposes fewer social costs than alcohol. But these arguments really miss the point.

The point is human potential, human initiative and human excellence. Pot use doesn’t make us smarter or more creative; it makes us less so. It doesn’t motivate us to be our best; it motivates us to be buzzed, living in a non-reality exempt from discipline and hard work. A workforce with more marijuana use is not a benefit, it’s a cost. Legalized marijuana appears at first blush like a freedom; it’s really a trap.

To be clear, it bothers me that we fill our jails and prisons up with non-violent offenders. There’s got to be a better way to help people who commit minor drug offenses. But when it comes to state legalization of weed, I see a state with a less productive, less healthy and less desirable workforce. I think others will see the same.

Boeing recently opened its second manufacturing facility in Utah and now employs more than 600 Utahns. Gov. Gary Herbert reports that when Boeing started looking outside of the Seattle area for a workforce to build its new 777X airliner, Salt Lake City was its first call. Colorado also expressed interest. While Boeing has announced that production of the 777X will remain in Seattle, more Boeing work packages will be bid out in the future. In competition between Utah and Colorado, which state will it choose?

There is a lot to love about both states. But I think Boeing and other companies looking to make serious investments will place an extraordinary premium on a workforce that has discovered a higher and more productive pleasure than being stoned—the pleasure of human achievement through self-control and hard work.