Life Lessons

Exploiting Addiction for Profit

The Times magazine had a great piece on New York’s marijuana problem. The piece centers around the problem of how the industry should be regulated. On the one hand, having too much regulation allows illegal shops to pop up. However, the author points out that regulation is important when talking about addictive and harmful products.

There are 140 legal dispensaries and an estimated 2,000 to 8,000 illegal ones. This significant disparity highlights the ongoing challenges the state faces in controlling the marijuana market and ensuring that legal businesses can thrive while curbing the black market.

One of the ways to get rid of the illegal ones is to lower the amount of regulation. Deregulation could make it easier for legal businesses to compete with illegal dispensaries by reducing costs and simplifying the licensing process. This approach could potentially drive down prices and increase the availability of legal marijuana, making it less attractive for consumers to seek out illegal options.

However, the writer, a free market conservative millennial, is against a free-market approach because marijuana is addictive. When people use the word “addictive,” it isn’t always in the clinical sense that medical professionals use. Medical professionals will say that alcohol is addictive and marijuana isn’t. Technically this is true because when an alcoholic stops drinking, they face severe withdrawal symptoms that can be life-threatening.

When an alcoholic stops drinking, awful things happen: they can experience delirium tremens (DTs), which can cause seizures, severe confusion, hallucinations, and even death if not properly managed. These acute withdrawal symptoms are why alcohol is classified as physically addictive and often requires medical intervention during detoxification.

This doesn’t mean that maijuana isn’t “addictive” the way most people mean. Regular marijuana users can develop a tolerance (needing increasing more of the substance) and dependence (experiencing unpleasant symptoms when they don’t use). Nearly half of regular cannabis users will experience “marijuana withdrawal,” characterized by anxiety, irritability, anger, depression, and sometimes “chills, headaches, physical tension, sweating, and stomach pain.” These symptoms, while not as severe as alcohol withdrawal, still indicate a level of dependency that can affect users’ lives.

As I wrote about in my article about social media, the economics of addictive products don’t work like typical products. In non-addictive products, what’s good for the seller is good for the buyer. But for addicts, this dynamic shifts dramatically. The sellers profit from the compulsive use of their products, often at the expense of the users’ health and well-being.

Addicts use a lot more of a substance than non-addicts. RAND Corporation and Carnegie Mellon researchers have estimated that daily or near-daily marijuana users account for 37 percent of the using population but 80 percent of marijuana used. This is true of many other addictive products too. For instance, heavy drinkers and smokers also consume a disproportionately large share of alcohol and cigarettes. It also extends to video games and social media.

In an episode of South Park, the boys talk about how freemium video games are addictive. The episode draws strong parallels between freemium games and substance addiction. Just like with substance abuse, players of these games can develop tolerance and dependence, needing to spend increasing amounts of money to maintain their enjoyment or progress. They may also experience emotional and psychological distress, akin to withdrawal symptoms, when they cannot play or advance in the game.

The episode criticizes the intentional design of freemium games to exploit these addictive tendencies. The business model of freemium games is built on the addiction of a small percentage of players, known as “whales,” who spend large amounts of money. The creators of these games, fully aware of the manipulative tactics and their harmful effects, continue to exploit them for profit. This points to a moral issue where the drive for profit often overrides the concern for consumers’ well-being. There’s even a scathing video which attacks the Drink Resposibly campaigns of beer companies.

The exploitation of addictive tendencies, whether through legal substances like marijuana or digital products like freemium games, highlights the need for thoughtful regulation and consumer protection. As we navigate these modern industries, it’s crucial to recognize and address the ways in which they can harm individuals and society, ensuring that the drive for profit does not come at the expense of our well-being.