In a couple of my previous posts, I have taken on the issue of legalization of marijuana -- once in the affirmative and once in the negative. In this third post in the series, I continue my discussion of the costs and benefits of marijuana, but with the focus of addressing the logic of one of the premiere articles in support of legalization (according to number of Diggs at http://www.digg.com/).
As I stated in my last post, my plan was to take the negative another time, but I couldn't resist critiquing a top ten list of reasons for legalizing marijuana that I found on Digg. I think a good case can be made for lifting the ban on marijuana, but I believe that many of the ideas out there are rubbish.
Therefore, I land mostly on the negative side in this critique, but there are sparks of positive intermixed. In the future, I plan to discuss what I think are good reasons to favor legalization. In particular, check out Jeffery Miron. I find most of what he says to be reasonable.
10. Prohibition has failed to control the use and domestic production of marijuana.
This is an interesting point, but by itself, failure to control an illegal activity does not warrant legalizing. To see why, consider an example. Chicago was swept by a rash of violent crime last year. Some said that it was and remains out of control.
To examine the logic of #10, let's apply the logic to murder: "prohibition on X has failed to control X, therefore we should legalize X." Let X = "marijuana use," we get reason #10. Let X = "murder in Chicago," we get complete nonsense! The same logic as reason #10 can be given as a reason for anarchy. Without some modification, reason #10 cannot be a valid reason to legalize pot.
9. Arrests for marijuana possession disproportionately affect blacks and Hispanics and reinforce the perception that law enforcement is biased and prejudiced against minorities.
This is horrible reasoning. An alternative reason to expect more minorities arrested for doing marijuana is that, on average, a greater fraction of minorities do marijuana. That we see a disproportionate fraction of minorities arrested for marijuana is just the law of large numbers at work; it is not necessarily evidence of discrimination or law enforcement bias. Law enforcement bias is a reason to expect that more minorities are arrested for doing marijuana, but it is not the only reason. Plus, the alternative (more crime leads to more arrests) is arguably more compelling.
Whether or not you think it is compelling, let's suppose that that all arrests for marijuana possession are made on the basis of law enforcement bias. Does this necessarily mean that the law that prohibits the activity is at fault? Clearly, no! If this is the case, the problem is with the law enforcement bias, not with the law on the books.
My point: the remedy for law enforcement bias cannot come from striking some laws from the books. As long as there are both laws and enforcement bias, there will be biased enforcement of laws. This does not mean that the law is right, nor does it mean that enforcement bias is justified. It just means that reason #9 is not a reason to legalize marijuana.
8. A regulated, legal market in marijuana would reduce marijuana sales and use among teenagers, as well as reduce their exposure to other drugs in the illegal market.
The first point is nonsense, but the second point makes sense.
To see why the first point is nonsense, consider very basic economics (Econ101). If you have taken an economics class, you know that as the price of a good decreases, people consume more of that good. With some further thought on the issue, you would recognize that price includes all monetary costs, as well as non-monetary costs (i.e., jail time, avoiding police, etc.) of obtaining the good.
Given this framework, it isn't hard to see that the price of marijuana is currently very high. Not only are the monetary costs high (most likely because suppliers need to be compensated for their risks), but the non-monetary costs are quite high as well. Legalization would decrease both types of costs. Even if we imposed a huge tax on the drug, the full price (including both monetary and non-monetary costs) would likely go down. The law of demand tells us that the inevitable conclusion is more consumption of the good: both by current users and current non-users. This is standard, basic economics.
On the second point, I believe that legalization would make marijuana less of a gateway drug. As a result, we might see the use of other illegal drugs decline, which would be a nice consequence of legalization. From the perspective of the economic argument posed previously, trying another illegal drug has a low non-monetary cost for a marijuana user who is already breaking the law. In an economic sense, that cost is less relevant to trying other illegal drugs. If marijuana were illegal, this would cease to be the case. As a result, we would see a weaker correlation between marijuana use and use of other "hard" drugs.
7. Legalized marijuana would reduce the flow of money from the American economy to international criminal gangs.
I agree. I also think that local gangs (like the ones that neighbor my community on Chicago's South Side) would have less of a reason to exist if marijuana were legal. Currently, gangs fight over territory, and the violence terrorizes communities. Legalizing marijuana would remove a big bone from the pile of bones that these gangs fight over. Not only would some gangs stop fighting, but they would fight less intensely.
In addition, gangs would also have fewer resources to attract and retain members because their market share is smaller. These potential members will do their next best alternative: either work for McDonalds, or perhaps, go to college (depending on your perspective). All of these are excellent consequences to striking the law from the books.
The best counterpoint to this reason for legalization is a question: Doesn't this argument apply to any drug for which there is a black market? Indeed it does! If we were to take this argument as our only basis for legalization of drugs, we would have happily legalized crack cocaine in the early 1990s. Given the severity of crack's effects on communities, that doesn't seem to be sound policy.
To be fair, marijuana is no crack cocaine, but we have to be clear about what is a reason and what is not. This reason is more of a really good side benefit. If we have other compelling reasons to legalize, this one should push us over the edge.
6. Marijuana's legalization would simplify the development of hemp as a valuable and diverse agricultural crop in the United States, including its development as a new biofuel to reduce carbon emissions.
I'm not sure what to make of this argument, especially given that it is followed by "Canada and European countries have managed to support legal hemp cultivation without legalizing marijuana." Sure there are obstacles in the American political economy, but why we can't do what these countries did? I think this reason was added in so the authors could get a "top ten" list.
5. Prohibition is based on lies and disinformation.
This statement means nothing if the truth is equally as horrible as the lies and disinformation. In general, calling the other side a liar is not good rhetoric. With respect to keeping marijuana illegal, I suspect that some degree of propagandizing has taken place, but I am not sure how important the smearing is, especially when I perceive both sides to be fudging the truth to gain some public favor.
Back to marijuana. To me, marijuana is an substance that my roommate in college did. The facts I know:
(1) Marijuana is a drug that has mind-altering properties.
(2) A common way to take the drug is to smoke it, but some ads on my blog suggesting vaporizing is a cool way to get high.
(3) Sometimes people make marijuana brownies, but I don't suspect that's the most common way to do it.
(4) Michael Phelps did it, and supposedly it increases his lung capacity.
(5) Pot users get the munchies, but who doesn't. But, that might explain Phelps' diet!
(6) Pot users are perceived as lazy, but is that selection or part of the mind altering substance. I don't know.
Clearly, I don't know much about using marijuana aside from the stereotypes and basic facts, but the fact that marijuana is both mind altering and taken in vapor/smoke form suggests to me that we should be wary of second-hand effects.
4. Marijuana is not a lethal drug and is safer than alcohol.
I will add this to my list of marijuana facts, but I'm not sure that merely comparing pot with booze is the right idea. That's because there's no such thing as a contact high with alcohol, but there is with marijuana. Given this second-hand effect of marijuana, how can you designate a driver? What about public use? Cigarettes are banned from restaurants in many locations, and their second-hand effects are less severe than marijuana -- at least in the short term: if I have to choose between smelling bad and involuntarily getting high, I'd rather smell bad.
Comparisons aside, this reason misses a very important point because it focuses on how marijuana affects the user. Why should we care about marijuana's first-hand effects? As someone who cherishes liberty, I think we should be allowed to do what we please, say what we want to say, eat what we want to eat, and ingest what we want to ingest, just so long as our actions do not impinge on the liberties of others. That's why my primary concern with marijuana is the second-hand effects.
I expect people to weigh the costs and benefits of first-hand effects, no matter how severe. To take an extreme case, suppose we legalize cyanide pills. Do you really think that people would not weigh the costs and benefits of taking cyanide and fail to make the optimal decision regarding their use? People do the same with marijuana, just not on such a grand scale.
3. Marijuana is too expensive for our justice system and should instead be taxed to support beneficial government programs.
First off, I would like to point out the words "too," "should," and "beneficial." It sounds like the author of this list is really trying to convince the readers that taxing and regulating marijuana would be a good idea fiscally.
Secondly, I instead address the statement "Taxing and regulating marijuana will lead to more money in government coffers." My response: maybe so, maybe no. Given the illegal nature of the drug and the regime shift that legalization would entail, it is hard to make a definitive claim about causation: legalizing might be more expensive.
Here's one reason to think so:
If we still want to prohibit high school kids from using pot under the legal scheme, this may pose a problem fiscally. High school kids' non-monetary costs have decreased because finding suppliers (anyone over the legal age) is much easier. The monetary cost will also decrease because suppliers are no longer in danger of going to jail. On both counts, we see that the price decreases for high school kids. Therefore, in a legal-above-18 regime, there are more high school kids who will attempt to try marijuana. As before, this is just the law of demand, Econ101.
No one would pretend that regulating alcohol or tobacco use by teens is cheap. Moreover, it is reasonable to expect that the number of marijuana cases among teens to increase dramatically. Currently, only about 20 percent of teens have ever tried marijuana. In contrast, nearly 60 percent of high school students have had alcohol in the last year. That's a huge difference, and it would pose regulatory and judicial issues if even half of the gap of casual users were bridged by legalization.
Depending on the ratio of teens to adults who who use (or would use) marijuana, the problems with regulating underage use could imply a net increase in costs. In the worst case scenario, the juvenile justice system would be flooded with marijuana cases. Talk about clogging up court systems!
Depending on how responsive kids are to this decrease in price, the effect on revenue could go the other way. If very few high schoolers try marijuana on account of legalization, the effect on our fiscal health would be positive. On the other hand, if a bunch of high school kids start trying it because it is legal, it likely will not lead to a tax windfall.
I don't know if we have a good sense for how much use would increase among high school kids if marijuana were legalized. But, to make informed policy, we need to know.
2. Marijuana has positive attributes, such as its medical value and use as a recreational drug with relatively mild side effects.
I don't really know how to address the logic of this one. Either it has scientific value or it does not. I'm an economist, so I'll leave the medical issues to the scientists.
What am I willing to say? I suspect that the illegality of the drug is warranted on some front. Whether or not it was a good idea, it had to have been an idea. To learn more about the purported "mild side effects," I conducted a Google search. Scouring the first result, I found these side effects. Tell me if you think they are mild:
Lung cancer, heart attacks, strokes
Increased likelihood for accidents (6 to 11 percent of fatal accidents are marijuana related)
Loss of self-identification
Deteriorating physical abilities
Increased heart rate and breathing rate
Speeds up the aging process
Diminished ability to learn and adapt quickly to changes
A point of clarification: whether the side effects are mild is beside the point. From a public policy perspective, the only "side effect" that should interest us is how the drug affects others. If we want to call this "the land of the free," who are we to stop someone from doing something that hurts only themselves?
That said, if non-users are negatively affected by marijuana use, then we have a case for policy intervention -- just like smoking bans in restaurants or harsh sentences for driving under the influence. On the other hand, if marijuana use affects no one but the user, the policy of banning (or even regulating) the drug has no leg to stand on. The fact that we're even having this policy discussion tells us that there are some second hand effects of marijuana. The appropriate question is how to manage them.
1. Marijuana users are determined to stand up to the injustice of marijuana probation and accomplish legalization, no matter how long or what it takes to succeed.
Good for them. That doesn't mean that it should be legalized. Again, this appears to be another non-reason to get the number of reasons in the list to ten.
Of these Top 10 Reasons Marijuana Should be Legal:
Five (#1, #5, #6, #9, #10) are not reasons at all, but empassioned pleas to join the cause.
1.5 (#3, and first part of #8) are false or based on incorrect logic.
Two (#2 and #4) are dubious and vague "scientific" arguments.
1.5 (#7 and the second part of #8) remain valid.
As I said earlier, the legalization reduces gang power argument is only a good point if we have other compelling reasons to legalize the drug. This list offers few compelling reasons even though a good case can be made. If this list is representative of the reasons for legalizing, that's a problem for the legalization debate.