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Reefer Madness
A Call for Caution on Marijuana

Though marijuana politics has been surprisingly absent from the 2016 campaign trail, the march toward legalization is quietly continuing apace. Legislatures are softening criminal penalties for pot possession, and several states are likely to hold referenda on Colorado-style legalization in November. And yet, it’s hard to escape the sense that enthusiasm for full-fledged legalization has declined somewhat since the first states made pot available for large-scale recreational use in 2012. A comprehensive essay in National Affairs by Jonathan P. Kaulkins outlines some good reasons for caution:

Marijuana use is highly concentrated among the growing minority who use daily or near-daily. Adults who use fewer than ten times per month and who suffer no problems with substance abuse or dependence account for less than 5% of consumption. More than half of marijuana is consumed by someone who is under the influence more than half of all their waking hours. Most marijuana users are healthy; most marijuana use is not.

In the resulting confusion, advocates of legalization often argue (effectively) that “marijuana is safer than alcohol.” It would be far more accurate to say “Marijuana is safer than alcohol, but it is also more likely to harm its users.”

The essay is essential reading for anyone looking to get a balanced and informed perspective of the tradeoffs involved in marijuana debate; read the whole thing. Kaulkins does not argue for a return to draconian penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana; rather, he seems to think that some form of decriminalization is inevitable if not entirely desirable, and thinks that institutions need to prepare for the various problems that will ensue.

Loosening marijuana restrictions seems, as we have said before, like “the worst possible policy except all others.” As Kaulkins shows, however, the debate over marijuana is much more nuanced than “legal” or “illegal.” Policymakers will need to decide how it is distributed, taxed, and regulated.

This can and will lead to a Pandora’s Box of difficult situations, new laws and even new prison sentences for people who fall afoul of the new laws. Presumably there will be a minimum age for legally buying marijuana, and the penalties for sales to minors might well be made harsher as part of an effort to safeguard kids in a world in which marijuana is even more easily available than it now is. There will probably also be laws about the maximum strength permitted in legally sold pot; again, those who sell bootleg pot that is over the legal strength limit or hasn’t been appropriately taxed and inspected will face legal penalties. DUI laws will be adjusted to include those impaired by cannabis use; legalizing pot won’t empty the jails of pot offenders any more than ending Prohibition took the legal system out of the alcohol regulation business.

We would add that as the legal restrictions on marijuana fade, it is likely that social and institutional sanctions will become more important: Employers might be more likely to drug test employees, and marijuana use could become a problem for people in jobs and professions that require clarity and focus.

Marijuana policy is an important social question with very high stakes, and it would be nice to see it feature more prominently in 2016 races. Hopefully candidates will start to talk more about marijuana policy—but only after reading the Kaulkins piece and other well-informed analyses on the subject, like this one in TAI.

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  • Andrew Allison

    Let’s see if I have this right: using marijuana daily or near daily is “substance abuse”, but my daily cocktail and/or wine are not??? Smoking tobacco daily is not? Drinking high-sugar soda daily is not? Etc. Where’s the evidence that recreational marijuana is any worse than the foregoing? Seems to me that they are all victim-less crimes (not that I’m discussing use, not distribution, although by the same reasoning, producers of alcoholic and sweet beverages and tobacco products are also culpable).

    • Jim__L


    • ljgude

      Excellent Fisking Andrew.

  • ljgude

    I had a friend who got a contract to put in a drop ceiling about 60 feet in the air in a small city airport. Most of his work was spray painting at which he was superb and his crew routinely lit up at morning smoke break and cruised until quittin’ time paintin’ up a storm. They were not smoking Camels. First day on the job at the airport they lit up as usual. They didn’t fall off the ladders or anything. They just couldn’t keep the numbers in their heads or be quite sure how to measure. Up and down the ladders they went checking and rechecking. Debating the results. Material was wasted – tempers lost – it was a schlimazel. Informal lesson learned: Don’t try to engage the left brain under the influence of marijuana.

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