The symbiotic tensions of the regulatory–carceral state: The case of cannabis legalization

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Recent scholarship has emphasized the need to develop a polymorphic conceptualization of the regulatory state. This article contributes to this theory-building project by outlining a research agenda for exploring the symbiotic interactions and tensions between the regulatory and carceral morphs of the state. Using the case study of cannabis legalization reforms in the United States, we argue that the legitimation deficits of the carceral state stimulate the proliferation of new regulatory frameworks for governing social problems that were traditionally handled by the criminal justice system. We demonstrate how the polymorphic approach illuminates the ways in which the regulatory and carceral morphs of the state compete for influence over shared policy domains, but also complement and reinforce one another. Thus, rather than precipitating the demise of the carceral state, cannabis legalization reforms sustain a bifurcated governance structure perpetuating long-standing patterns of using drug law as a means for racialized social control.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)S23-S39
JournalRegulation and Governance
Issue numberS1
StatePublished - Nov 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Authors. Regulation & Governance published by John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd


  • cannabis legalization
  • carceral state
  • drug policy
  • race
  • regulatory state

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Public Administration
  • Law


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