Reader Question: Legalized Marijuana?

The first issue I was asked to address was that of legalized marijuana. Thank you so much, Elisabeth, for giving me such a non-controversial, easy to discuss topic… oh, wait. Nevermind. You’re trying to get me in trouble, aren’t you?

This subject is obviously controversial, with many people on either side holding beliefs so tightly it borders on religious fervor. Personally, I have never smoked marijuana and I do not plan to. From a Christian perspective, its intoxicating effects violate the instructions we are given concerning drunkenness, and from a personal perspective I just hate not having complete control of myself – this is why I never drink to excess either. I say this to show that I do not have a personal stake in this, and to be up-front about where my biases lie. These strong beliefs, along with the fact that society has such a bizarre and convoluted viewpoint on the subject, makes it difficult to establish any sort of real, balanced public forum or debate on the topic – as California is finding out right now the hard way. Let me then start by addressing some basic aspects of “how” and “why” legalization could or should occur before I get into whether or not it actually should happen.

First, we have the problem of federal versus local law. As it stands, the FedGov has decided that marijuana, along with scores of other substances, is banned from being bought, sold, or owned anywhere in the US. This means that if a single state were to pass laws making it legal to own and use marijuana, the feds could show up and arrest you for possession anyway – and this has been tested and confirmed by the Supreme Court. Currently this problem is largely just swept under the rug by the feds in cases involving “medical marijuana” so as not to cause a fuss – however, the legality of it is still in question since the feds have made a blanket law about the issue. This is the first obstacle that would need to be hurdled, either by a blanket decree of legality (bad idea) or by getting rid of the federal law and giving the responsibility back to the states (better idea).

Second, we have the question of limitation – would it be legalized for everyone, or just medical users? Would it be rationed or unlimited? These questions would need to be answered clearly before any official legislation could be useful. Let me take a detour here and mention the issue of medical marijuana, especially as it is playing out in California – namely, that I think it is largely a joke at this point. Currently there is no guideline as to who may receive a recommendation for it from a doctor – some reports say as high as 80 percent of those buying from legal “pot clubs” in California are perfectly healthy. Additionally, all that is required is a doctor’s note, not a prescription, for reasons related to the first problem. The DEA controls prescription pads, and according to them, marijuana is still a banned substance.  In order for marijuana to become legal in any meaningful way, it would either have to be made available to the general public in a similar manner to tobacco, or rationed and documented in the same way a prescription is, likely the form of THC pills, which would require the endorsement and testing of the FDA – something that likely would significantly decrease its availability compared to the “club” arrangements now, considering the FDA maintains that there are no direct medical benefits from marijuana.

So that brings us to the question of whether or not it should be legalized. Let me say that if marijuana is to be legalized only for medical use then it should undergo the same FDA tests and rules that any other substance does – anything less is just political pandering and nonsense. A double standard exists for the drug simply because of its overwhelming recreational use, not because of its legitimacy as a “miracle drug,” and the FDA is far more qualified to address that issue than I am. So then the question simplifies to whether or not marijuana should be legalized specifically for recreational use.

As I see it, the main arguments for general legalization of marijuana are 1) it’s not harmful enough to justify the government’s interference, and 2) a ton of people will use it anyway, so all that’s being accomplished is the overcrowding of prisons and more federal spending. The main arguments against it are 1) yes it is, and 2) so what?

Let me break each of these down a bit further.

There are three ways in which marijuana is considered harmful to the user. The first is that it can cause dependency, especially in adolescents. The second is that it is a “gateway  drug” – opponents claim that marijuana users are far more likely to move on to harder drugs than non-users. The third harmful effect is metal or physical health detriments – smoking marijuana can lead to many of the same respiratory problems as tobacco, while also introducing a few other risks (mainly due to fungal contamination). It has also been linked to schizophrenia, memory loss, and chronic depression.

Few will argue against marijuana dependence being a real thing; the argument mostly lies in its relevance, as the symptoms are mild compared to many other common addictions, such as nicotine. Many of the symptoms are similar – both users experience irritability, restlessness, nausea, loss of appetite, and sleeping problems, but in general, nicotine addicts have much more severe instances of these symptoms. As far as dependency goes, the effect is most similar in strength to caffeine, although the intoxicating effect is far greater than either nicotine or caffeine.

The argument that marijuana is a gateway drug is probably the single most common argument used by opponents of legalization. Depending on the study and criteria, marijuana users are anywhere from five to 26 times more likely to use a harder drug than those who do not use marijuana. In some cases this is due to dealers lacing their product with harder drugs such as PCP in order to create a dependence on their product – this is uncommon, however, and avoidable. The main reason for the link is unclear; it may be that there is a tolerance factor that is pushing the user to new drugs, or it may simply be that there is a cultural/psychological factor at play: once you have crossed the line for pot, why not try something else? This makes it difficult to establish the actual value of these numbers to the debate at large. I’ll come back to this point in a bit.

Finally, the health risks of marijuana use are numerous; some of the symptoms of long-term use include learning disabilities, paranoia, hallucinations, respiratory problems, high risk of infertility, loss of inhibition, and high blood pressure and increased heart rate. While serious, many of these symptoms can be caused by legal substances as well – alcohol abuse and smoking have numerous well-known detrimental health effects. This has caused many of the supporters of legalization to argue that marijuana is no more dangerous than legal drugs, making it unreasonable to prohibit marijuana for health reasons.

So the argument that marijuana is inherently harmful enough to warrant special treatment is shaky. While it is certainly dangerous, banning it outright for those dangers alone seems inconsistent given the acceptance of alcohol and tobacco for common use.

This brings us to the main argument that supporters of legalization give: supporters say that lifting the ban can cause economic growth, lower crime, and even reduce marijuana use overall! Let’s look at these claims individually.

Milton Friedman, along with over 500 other economists, signed a petition supporting the legalization of marijuana from an economic standpoint, claiming it would save $7.7 billion per year on enforcement and producing revenues in excess of $2.4 billion – possibly upwards of $6 billion if heavily taxed like alcohol and tobacco.  Based on current production and street costs, the price of marijuana would probably drop considerably even with the highest comparable taxes placed on it – which would, if anything, only yield higher tax revenues. This dollar amount would also finally figure into our GDP, giving us a boost there as well.

The next two claims are related and are largely taken from the experiences this country had during the 1920’s during our failed experiment with alcohol prohibition.  During prohibition, alcohol consumption actually increased, after a brief decrease in the first year, and the numbers for women drinkers increased far more rapidly than during the previous years. The average age to form a drinking habit also dropped during this time. Many drinkers also developed new opium, marijuana, or cocaine addictions as well during this time, as the peddlers of illegal alcohol frequently were also the era’s drug traders, as I alluded to earlier. Once prohibition was repealed, alcohol consumption dropped again, and the average drinking age rose to even higher than it was in the years leading up to it.  Supporters claim that many of the problems we see today would also disappear with legalization: the money would be funneled away from the drug dealers and organized crime into the government, which would give the government more manpower and money to fight the other crimes once marijuana was off its radar.  In addition, the marijuana would be of guaranteed quality since it would be controlled, reducing risk of lacing or contamination and their associated health risks.

It would also significantly reduce crime figures and jail population; in 2008, there were over 847,000 arrests for marijuana trafficking, sales, or possession, accounting for over 6% of all arrests made that year, and half of all drug-related arrests.  Marijuana offenders account for a significant portion of the prison population at around 12.9% or nearly 60,000 people. It stands to reason that m ost of these resources could be regained quickly were the ban on marijuana overturned.

With all this in mind it is easy for me to see why many would protest the federal government maintaining a ban on marijuana as a matter of policy. Those of you who know me or have read my blog for a while should know that I have strong libertarian tendencies when it comes to the political realm, so it should come as no shock to you when I say that I would be fine with the federal government lifting the ban at their level and allowing the individual states to decide the issue. As for whether or not I would vote for legalization in Arizona, I cannot say for certain. For me to consider voting yes, the rules would need to be at least as stringent as current tobacco laws, if not significantly moreso. I can easily see both sides of the argument, but my gut feeling is that it’s a bad idea. There’s a lot of harm that can come from widespread drug use, and while the monetary benefits are very tempting, the risk is great. These worries are only compounded by looking at many of the European countries who have legalized various drugs for recreational use and seen drug use increase significantly, along with the accompanying moral decay. While I believe the “War on Drugs” is, as it stands, a very expensive failure, the alternatives to it make me uniformly uneasy. We already overindulge ourselves as a society, and we’ve already seen how much damage alcohol abuse can wreak on a family or a community – do we really need another sanctioned intoxicant added to the mix? As a (true) conservative, my default position is to say that things should be left as they are, and so I will fall back on that here by saying that on this issue I would probably vote no, although I will not entirely rule out the possibility of having my mind changed in the future.

If there are any other subjects you’d like to see me tackle this month (and they don’t have to be this serious, and they probably won’t be this long), please let me know!

4 thoughts on “Reader Question: Legalized Marijuana?”

  1. “During prohibition, alcohol consumption actually increased, after a brief decrease in the first year, and the numbers for women drinkers increased far more rapidly than during the previous years”

    That’s a bit misleading I think. I was under the impression that alcohol consumption did actually drop during prohibition, and crime did as well. The Cato Instiutue may not be the best place to find objective data.

    I googled the subject and found a number of sites talking about that. Here are a couple that I found:

    From the National Economic Institute (http://www.nber.org/papers/w3675):
    “We estimate the consumption of alcohol during Prohibition using mortality, mental health and crime statistics. We find that alcohol consumption fell sharply at the beginning of Prohibition, to approximately 30 percent of its pre-Prohibition level. During the next several years, however, alcohol consumption increased sharply, to about 60-70 percent of its pre-prohibition level. The level of consumption was virtually the same immediately after Prohibition as during the latter part of Prohibition, although consumption increased to approximately its pre-Prohibition level during the subsequent decade.”

    And from Digital History (http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/database/article_display.cfm?HHID=441):
    “The death rate from alcoholism was cut by 80 percent by 1921 from pre-war levels, while alcohol-related crime dropped markedly.”

  2. I would like to see more information coming from the Netherlands, as they have a system in place which allows the sale of Cannabis through Coffee Shops.

    I say this because their government probably has good statistical data related to the drug. And it would be interesting to investigate any changes in crime rates, violent crimes, gang/mofia related activity, depression amongst its people, and education related statistics.

    There are so many more statistics to look at to decide whether the legal sale of marijuana to the local population is really worth the freedom in selling that particular drug. But I highlighted some points because those are pretty bread and butter concerns in regards to marijuana being legalized.

    It is also worth mentioning that despite what seems to be a losing battle in the drug war, I pose the question does that mean we should not fight the war?

    But in the end I am really on the fence over this issue myself. However when I look at this question, the only people that seem to be asking if we really should legalize it are English 101 college students and politicians.

    That last statement was kind of a cheap shot, but I would like a lot more information in my pocket before “a financially sound” legalization of marijuana is put into place. There is so much that can be learned from the Netherlands as I mentioned before.

  3. Valid medicinal value, it’s a victimless crime, the War on Drugs WAY too costly, too many arrests for simple possession, tax it and use the money to pay for health insurance and to reduce the deficit…Need I say more?

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