Until recently, it was technically illegal to possess pot in the United States. Even small amounts could get you arrested and thrown in jail.
These days, about half of U.S. states allow marijuana for medical or recreational use, and many of the rest turn a blind eye. Pot is often more socially acceptable than smoking cigarettes.
This piece is part of CoinDesk's Sin Week.
Social norms change and laws catch up, eventually. But the financial system? That’s a trickier question.
Even as pot dispensaries have appeared throughout the country, these perfectly legal businesses have often struggled to get access to bank accounts and mainstream payments. Because pot is still illegal at the federal level, companies like Mastercard (MA) and Visa (V) are unwilling to play along.
It’s the same with other so-called “sin” industries, including sex work, guns and gambling. While the activities may be technically legal, depending on the jurisdiction, a mixture of corporate morality and government intrusion have hampered their activities.
Look, for instance, at how the Obama Administration’s Operation Choke Point unbanked gun sellers and payday lenders, or how the Canadian government froze donations to anti-vaccination protests. Whatever one thinks of guns, payday lenders and truckers refusing vaccines, we should question whether the government has the right to make moralizing decisions outside the legal and democratic process. The principle of free speech, among other liberties, is at stake.
Financial systems effectively have the power to dictate what is right and wrong, or at least what you and I can do easily and conveniently. When Mastercard or Visa refuse financial service to sex workers and weed dispensaries, they are making moral statements as much as following the law. And it’s this notion that cryptocurrency seeks to challenge.
Crypto says that public blockchain networks should be neutral for all to use (even if people are breaking the law). It promises openness where the traditional financial system offers censure and exclusion.
With CoinDesk’s Sin Week – a late-summer excursion around the seamier corners of the internet – you can see the clash of closed versus open finance head on. Sex workers look to crypto as an alternative to fiat payments. Weed dispensaries turn to stablecoins like Tether’s USDT and Circle’s USDC. Casinos set up in the metaverse offering token payouts that may or may not represent actual gambling. And so on.
However imperfectly, crypto is challenging the norms of what is permissible in the financial system, and therefore what is permissible in society.
The question for all of us, as David Z. Morris writes in a new essay (“In Defense of Crime”), is where we want the line between centralized control and pure financial freedom to lie.
Is giving up our privacy and freedom to transact online a price worth paying for the government’s ability to fight crime and terrorism? Are financial surveillance and censorship justifiable if they’re taking on, say, sex trafficking or reducing access to firearms that may kill people?
As Morris writes, some criminal behavior may not be a bad thing, all things considered. It may be worth having a little of the bad stuff if the cure is worse than the disease. Stamping out all crime may be impossible, and in trying to achieve that goal a society may be doing more harm than good.
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Following the social theorist, Emile Durkheim, Morris argues that “crime is an inevitable byproduct of individual freedom in a modern society, a byproduct of people navigating a complex and changeable social landscape.” It may even be a positive good if it shows what society actually wants. In the case of marijuana, the “crime” of millions of people possessing and smoking a plant showed society’s moral norm may have been wrong all along.
For CoinDesk’s Sin Week, we’ll be exploring the clash of old-world finance and crypto, how Web3 can help (or not help) illicit or at least pariah industries like weed, porn, guns and gambling. In none of these cases are we suggesting that you should take part yourself. There are salubrious reasons to abstain from drugs or gambling. But we do believe that it should be up to the people to decide what vices are permissible (not a distant central government and certainly not unelected executives at Mastercard). And we, as a society, shouldn’t always be so certain or adamant about where the ethical lines should be. Norms change and our financial system should be open to that change.
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