Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Marijuana III: Top Ten Reasons? Debunked!

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

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:

Increased appetite
Lung cancer, heart attacks, strokes
Increased likelihood for accidents (6 to 11 percent of fatal accidents are marijuana related)
Loss of self-identification
Breathing difficulties
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.


  1. Simply put, it is a victimless drug. The pros far outweigh the cons. One point you are forgetting though. Cigarettes and alcohal are both legal, and over and over again, it has been proven in studies that marijuana is much safer. So we should spend billions of dollars a year clogging our courts and prisons on something that is safer than many things available to the public? Aspiriin kills an average of 500 people a year. Ask a doctor how many die from pot, or ask a cop how many times they've been attacked by someone who is high on marijuana... Now ask those same questions about alcohol. If you do not think weed should be legal then you MUST stand for reinstating the prohibition of alcohol. You sir, obviously do not know what the hell you are talking about.

  2. Given the accusation that I don't know what I'm talking about, I would like to refer you to a quote from the article:

    "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."

    My point: the first hand effects shouldn't be what we debate. It is the second hand effects that matter for public policy.

    Also, I did not state that I am against lifting the ban. My point is that many arguments for lifting the ban are bad logic. We need to make the better, more compelling arguments if we want the issue to be taken seriously.

  3. you're spot on, tony. i think that too many people tink that "legalizing marijuana is good therefore any argument for marijuna legalization is good." your post shows why that's such a fallacy.

    as for "J," i think you should have read the post. if you did, you would see that tony is not saying to oppose marijuana legalization. he just wants to show why some arguments for it are stupid. maybe you, "J," don't know what you're talking about.

    nice work tony.

  4. The comedian Daniel Tosh believes we should legalize marijuana if for the only reason that will take away the one and only thing potheads have to talk about.

    Now, I look at it from the other direction, Cook-a-fizzle. The reasons given for its criminalization are also bogus. Drug statutes seem far too arbitrary to me, as well. If thought about as tiers, marijuana definitely falls into the same tier as alcohol and tobacco, yet is treated like cocaine.

    Good point in #9, by the way. And I also agree that alcohol is the "gateway" drug. However, in #8 you say that current non-users would start to use if legalized. But by how much? Marijuana is readily available as it is, and I have a hard time believing price and legality are responsible for those that do not use. Maybe you discussed this earlier, but what are the relative elasticities of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and other, "harder," drugs(is such data are available)?


    P.S. Did you plan to post a discussion on marijuana at 4:20, or was that just a coincidence. Either way, good timing on your part!

  5. Boy, I have to apologize for my grammar. I will proofread any forthcoming comments.

  6. Selk:

    In #8, you make a good point that marijuana is readily available as it is. That's what makes this such an interesting topic.

    My point in the article is that legalization would only make it easier to sell the drug -- for you econ nerds, this is a shift right in the supply curve, along the demand curve. -- This means a lower price, which implies that more high school kids will do it. To understand your question of "how much", you're right that we need demand elasticities for marijuana to really know whether expenses on law enforcement would increase or decrease.

    I've looked at the academic literature on drug prohibition more for big picture ideas than for elasticities and how they have been estimated.

    For these figures, we need data on prices and quantities traded. We also need that the data are truthful. As this is an illegal market, we can't exactly get accurate price-quantity data. As long as marijuana is illegal, people will lie about how much they do or what they pay, and researchers on the topic will be left guessing [This is not really fair, but in an open forum, it is the most adequate way to describe "use advanced econometric techniques that have multiple non-innocuous assumptions." Random sample, anyone?]

    But for estimating what would happen if we legalized, there's another problem. Suppose we have perfect price-quantity data. What does legalization mean for the market? I think that legalizing the drug changes the game that high school kids play.

    If pot is billed as illegal at any age, there is a fraction of kids who simply won't do it on that reason alone. If pot is legal once you turn 18, a 17-year-old kid (even one who has deep respect for the law) is going to have another rationalization for doing the drug: "Hey, I could do it next year at this time." That might just tip him over the edge.

    My point is that we don't know the fraction of high school kids who feel this way. We could ask the kids, but again, we're asking about an illegal market and potentially illegal activity. Do we really expect them to tell us the truth?

    Fundamentally, the world in which we collect data (where pot is illegal) is different than the world where we want to predict what happens (where pot is legal). That poses problems for forecasting (much like "rational expectations" sunk the Keynesians).

    Lastly, 4:20 AM was on purpose. Blogger lets me set the time for my posts to come online.

  7. Tony: have you seen the ads popping up for this post? I must have reader ADD because I got totally distracted - and humored! - by them.

  8. I see. Thanks for the clarifications. I have now been "Cooksoned."

    And if it is only the teen and young adult age group that you are focusing on, then I agree completely. Anyone under the age of, say, 23, needs to be tagged with a GPS, prohibited from driving, and not allowed to be in groups larger than four. Bunch of stone age maniacs, if you ask me.

    Furthermore, anyone caught driving under the influence should be summarily executed and the arresting officer takes possession of all the executed person's property.

    Too draconian?

  9. I kind of disagree with the gang reduction idea. It may reduce the prevalence of gangs in the short term, but only until they find another drug to sell illegally and make LARGE profits... During prohibition alcohol smugglers/dealers/brewers made ENORMOUS sums of money. After alcohol was made legal, these organizations ceased to exist, but others simply took their place selling other drugs.

    The same thing will happen if marijuana is legalized. People looking for an easy way to make money illegally will find a way.. whatever the drug or activity is.

    Other than that. Good argument.

  10. Minorities are NOT more likely to use marijuana. That's false according to any data you'll ever find ( is a good place to start).

    Why did you assume that minorities use more marijuana?

  11. Thanks for pointing me to this source. I went to the source looking for actual use statistics by race, but I was unsuccessful in finding adequate data -- the closest I found was #42, This one seemed more like an impression from a an observer than a systematic survey, data analysis, or experiment.

    If you can find reputable and systematic numbers on use of marijuana by race , I would definitely be interested in reading those statistics. Given that it is an illegal activity, I would still be skeptical that the survey is telling us the right number. That's because people have an incentive to lie on surveys (and who lies depends critically on how the survey is done).

    That said, I apologize for making a biased implicit assumption. I just usually presume that the overwhelming reason for whether someone is arrested for a crime is that they likely did it.

    Also, I didn't need it to invalidate #9. In particular, you can take enforcement bias as given, and striking the law from the books is still not going to eradicate the problem of enforcement bias.

    My other argument was IF minorities actually do more marijuana, we shouldn't be surprised if we see more minorities arrested for marijuana use. On this point, I was critiquing the logic of the sentence, not whether there actually is enforcement bias. The logic still holds, but the facts supporting it might not be true given what you've read. Therefore, I'll give a better argument:

    Off the top of my head, here's a revision of the "it doesn't have to be enforcement bias" argument that may be more palatable. Suppose whites and minorities do marijuana in equal proportions, but minorities commit more other crimes -- this is probably correlated with poverty more than race, and it doesn't apply to every minority or every white person. And, unless we're talking about bank fraud, I suspect that it is generally true.

    If more marijuana arrests are made in the presence of other crimes, then we would expect to see more than proportionate arrests for minorities using marijuana -- even in the absence of enforcement bias. Put another way, not everyone gets caught for doing the drug, but minorities get caught at a higher rate beause they commit more other crimes (which makes detecting marijuana use easier).

    That doesn't justify marijuana arrests on any front. It just critiques the logic of the "enforcement bias" argument for legalizing marijuana. In general, if there are other explanations for the same phenomenon, we can't just claim our favorite reason for it.