Policy

Want Legalized Marijuana? Better Hope America Stays Grumpy


Medical marijuana is dispensed in Colorado

Photograph by Matthew Staver/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Medical marijuana is dispensed in Colorado

The time is coming, predicts Euan Wilson, when people will smoke exotic varieties of marijuana, such as Maui Wowi, as casually as they drink Budweiser. How can he be sure?

Wilson is a researcher at the Socionomics Institute, a Gainesville (Ga.) think tank that examines the relationship between the overall mood of society and the gyrations of the financial markets, and he sees a definite correlation between increased marijuana legalization in the U.S. and the pessimistic, post-recession national mood. I asked him by e-mail to explain his assertion that such recent developments as the approval of a ballot measure in Colorado to tax legal pot sales support his larger theory.

How do you define socionomics?
Socionomics is the study of social mood and its influence over social actions. When a society’s mood is trending positively, people tend to buy stocks, expand businesses, act peacefully, and want happier entertainment. In a negative-mood trend, people tend to sell stocks, shrink their businesses, act belligerently, and go for more somber entertainment. We have found that social mood also regulates society’s tolerance of recreational drugs.

Why would social mood affect attitudes toward prohibition?
In a positive-mood trend, people think they can fix society. One way to do that, they believe, is to remove perceived social ills such as recreational drug use. Conversely, in times of negatively trending social mood, people are less optimistic about the future and their ability to improve it. They start questioning the high financial, social, human, and political costs of prohibition. Their patience wanes. Their motivation fades. They give up on prohibition.

Why are you so confident that marijuana will be legalized soon?
The stock market is our most reliable and sensitive measure of social mood. Alcohol prohibition, for example, was in full force in the 1920s bull market but was repealed in 1933—the year after the conclusion of an 89 percent decline in the Dow. Recently the U.S. stock market has been rallying in nominal terms. But in real terms—meaning adjusted for inflation—the S&P has been in a bear market since 2000. You can see this negative mood effect in the economic recovery, too, which has been one of the most sluggish on record. This is more evidence supporting the case that the larger-degree mood trend remains negative.

There are other manifestations. The current disdain for Congress and the president and the movement toward the legalization of marijuana are both footprints of negative social mood. Once the shorter-term mood trend joins the larger-degree trend to the downside, the drug-legalization movement should gain big-time traction, all the way up to the national level.

What’s happened recently around the country to support your thesis?
A lot. For the first time in history, a majority of Americans support marijuana legalization. Voters in Washington and Colorado have approved recreational use of marijuana. Also, the federal government has signaled that it won’t interfere with the states’ decisions. Both are huge developments, inconceivable to most people just a few years back. Other countries are giving up on the drug war, too. Uruguay has legalized marijuana nationwide, and its government is selling the drug to its citizens. Mexico City is considering similar reform.

What happens if the economy suddenly recovers?
The economy per se doesn’t matter as much as mood. If mood continues to get more positive and the stock market reaches new highs in real terms, legalization would probably encounter more barriers. Society would regain the energy and the will to prosecute the drug war. But with stock market optimism currently historically high by many measures, a new all-time high in real terms seems remote. So we aren’t expecting to be surprised on this front.

Do you really think Maui Wowie will be as familiar to the public as Budweiser?
Oh, that depends on tastes. Historically, alcohol has been most humans’ drug of choice.

Which one would you rather have right now?
My own vice indulgence is far more mundane, as I’m currently having a difficult time choosing between the PS4 and XBox One.
 

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Leonard is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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