With the start of this New Year, Colorado has legalized the sale of marijuana for recreational purposes; medical uses were already allowed in the Rocky Mountain State.
This represents the inevitable outcome of the voters' decision in 2012 to approve a state constitutional amendment ending a prohibition of the cultivation, commercialization and consumption of pot.
The state of Washington is lined up to do the same this year. Illinois, New York and more than a dozen other states appear to be moving toward more liberal policies for marijuana.
You don't need to be a political pundit to observe that the momentum for legalization is picking up steam. And while the movement seems to have a largely bicoastal character to it, I can't help but feel from our vantage point here in the geographical center of the country that we've seen this picture before.
The public policy log-rolling we're now witnessing bears a striking similarity to the various machinations that surrounded the inexorable push toward gambling (or gaming, if you like) across this nation in the 1990s.
Many may recall that Missouri played a pivotal role in this expansion drama. Indeed, Missouri was ground zero back then for an extended battle. The forces arrayed behind gaming were initially successful both with the Legislature and at the ballot box but then suffered a stunning reversal of fortune.
This was all followed by much back and forth with the pro- and anti- forces trading body blows like a couple of punch-drunk heavyweight fighters.
The casino timeline
For those not around at that time or with uncertain recollections, here's the basic chronology: legalization in 1992, followed by a successful constitutional challenge of legalized gambling, reinforced by the defeat of a constitutional amendment (Amendment 3) in 1994, but reversed by yet another constitutional amendment (Amendment 6) in that same year, which did pass, and then, believe it or not, yet another ballot initiative in 1998 (Amendment 9: remember boats in moats?).
By my count, that's four trips to the voter's booth in the 1990s to resolve this knotty issue.
The battle royal, of course, was the referendum on Amendment 6 — now almost 20 years ago. Industry money sensed it was do-or-die, while anti-gambling forces, buoyed by its David vs. Goliath defeat of gaming forces earlier that year with Amendment 3, were girding their loins to finish off their foe.
The campaign was big and splashy: A full-page ad by supporters of the amendment ran in the Sunday papers announcing the measure’s inevitability. "Now more than 25,000 strong and still growing. Missourians support Amendment 6."
Many of their names ran in small print in the background of the ads. Close inspection of these names revealed that they included opponents, a few deceased personages and even a TV sitcom character, Gidget.
The pro-casino forces eventually righted themselves and won a respectable victory in the polls. And why did they win? Superior resources no doubt helped them win at the wire, but in the tug-of-war of ideas the promise of economic benefit eventually crowded out a more nuanced moral debate.
Thus, with the current marijuana contretemps, we see legalization advocates making their arguments with scenarios bolstered by robust business growth and tax revenue windfalls. Opponents or even those with reservations seem to be asking questions more colored by ethics than economics. For example, will dropping these barriers encourage greater drug use or cause potential harm among our more malleable and vulnerable youth?
A well-worn maxim in business is that you can't manage what you can't measure. But even a well-intentioned weighing of cost and benefits has its limitations. While economic gains are easily imagined and gamely estimated, it would seem that moral costs are notoriously difficult to size and to fully appreciate. And who, really, can put the toothpaste back in the tube?
Let's give more than fleeting consideration to what might be lost in a blinkered pursuit of economic gain. Harry Truman, himself a keen student of lessons from the past, epitomized this Show-Me sensibility in observing that "the only new thing is the history you don't know."
James E. Fisher is chair of the marketing department and the Shaughnessy Fellow of Business Ethics at St. Louis University. His commentary originally ran in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.