Many policy questions illustrate a perceived tradeoff between liberty and security. On issues like drone strikes or the TSA, libertarians like me are accustomed to making the case that liberty should be given priority. Other times, pundits try to paint a contrast between liberty and prosperity; whether its stimulus spending, farm subsidies, crony capitalism or labor protectionism, we’re used to fighting these battles too. But when almost every informed observer agrees that a policy measure would advance all three of these ideals at once, making the case for that measure seems almost too easy. How could anyone oppose such an obviously beneficial reform?
Almost everyone today recognizes that the prohibition of alcohol was one of the most abysmal policy failures in American history. It created a vicious black market that killed thousands of people, made consumption more dangerous by eliminating the quality controls of an open market, and locked peaceful people in jail alongside violent criminals. It cost millions of dollars in government expenditures, and forfeited millions more in tax revenue. It killed thousands of jobs, enabled corruption, and restricted peoples’ natural freedoms to decide what to put in their own bodies, all while failing to make any substantial dent in consumption (or it’s negative public health effects). Ending this failed experiment in oppression saved money, time, and lives while enhancing freedom and decreasing crime.
Yet while everyone agrees alcohol prohibition had these effects, not everyone recognizes that the war on drugs has done the same thing on a far larger scale, for a far longer period of time. This is primarily due to the propagation misleading, sometimes blatantly false information about the consequences of drug use, while the far more devastating consequences of prohibition itself are ignored and glossed over. And while this is true for all drugs, nowhere is this misinformation more widespread than marijuana. In this post I’d like to dispel seven of these myths.
Bad Prohibitionist Argument #1: Marijuana is addictive.
Those who argue that marijuana is “addictive” are referring to the clinical, scientific definition of dependency. But clinical dependency is a highly watered down version of what most people think of when they hear the term “drug addiction”. By the clinical definition, about 10% of marijuana users have a “psychiatric dependency", meaning they feel cravings for the drug. However, unlike the cravings for other drugs, these cravings can be resisted by simple willpower. By that same definition, people can also become dependent on caffeine: heavy coffee drinkers often experience “withdrawal” symptoms of headache, fatigue, anxiety, irritability, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, etc. Similarly, heavy pot smokers might get a stronger hankering for another bong hit than people who never light up. But this is very different from “physical addiction”, which is the actually dangerous kind you get from other street drugs. When most people hear the term “drug addict”, they think of the desperate, pale, jittery, strung-out people who are so powerless before their dependency that they’re willing to do anything, from theft to murder, just to get their fix. Drugs like meth and heroin can do this to you. Marijuana certainly cannot. Considering studies have placed marijuana’s dependency rates lower than legal drugs like alcohol, tobacco and even caffeine, this rare and mild psychiatric attraction doesn’t seem like a good reason to make marijuana illegal.
Bad Prohibitionist Argument #2: Legalizing marijuana makes it accessible to kids.
You’ve all probably heard this argument before. “What about the kids?” a concerned conservative mother might ask. “I sure don’t want my son exposed to this at school. Drugs are a bad influence!”
The truth is that legalization makes it harder for kids to get marijuana, not easier. Why? Let’s compare it to another drug that’s legal for adults but illegal for children (just as legalization advocates say marijuana should be): alcohol. Surveys given to high-school children found they have much more access to marijuana than they do to alcohol because they don’t need ID to purchase the former. Almost everyone knows the local dealer is, and if they don’t they can probably find out by asking the right people (or asking a friend who uses where he gets his pot). Other surveys found that of 17 cited reasons why teenagers chose not to do pot, “too expensive” was third from the bottom and “wasn’t able to get any” was dead last. If drug vendors are licensed professionals instead of the gang member, it’s much easier to make those vendors comply with regulations about the age of their customers. Legalizing marijuana allows us to regulate the point of sale, making it one of the best ways to keep pot out of kids’ hands.
Bad Prohibitionist Arugment #3: Marijuana is a gateway drug.
Let’s forget for the moment that this is simply not borne out in the data: even most prohibitionists agree that “Most people who use marijuana will stop after trying it once or twice. And most of the rest will not become addicted and not use other drugs.” But even if it were true, the possibility of one thing leading to an illegal other thing does not make it okay to ban the first thing. Drinking might lead to DUI; driving might lead to speeding; using the internet might lead to pirating TV shows. But each of these activities is legal, because they can also be (and usually are) conducted safely and responsibly. Marijuana is no different.
Bad Prohibitionist Argument #4: “Legalizing marijuana would impose vast ‘social costs’ that outweigh its fiscal benefits.”
Edwin Meese III and Charles Stinson of the Heritage Foundation claim that alcohol and tobacco are net negatives for the economy, because they impose more costs on the government than they bring in from consumption revenue. They use this argument to suggest that the legalization of marijuana would cost us more than we’d gain. They write:
“tobacco does not carry its economic weight. In 2007, the government collected $25 billion in tobacco taxes but spent more than $200 billion per year to cover health and other tobacco-related costs. It is the same with alcohol: In 2007, governments collected $14 billion in alcohol taxes but spent $185 billion to cover health, crime, and other alcohol-related costs”
Former Senior Policy Advisor to Obama’s Drug Czar and current University of Florida Professor Kevin A. Sabet agrees, writing:
“today, society receives about $1 in alcohol and tobacco tax revenue for every $10 lost on the social costs of those two legal drugs. Increased drug use means increased costs.”
They are correct that legalizing marijuana would lower its price and probably increase its use, but they are wrong that this makes prohibition an economically preferable policy.
First, consider only the tax revenue gained from one specific tax, without considering the broader benefits to the economy on the whole. Alcohol and tobacco are massive industries which produce thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in revenue – revenue taxable under the income tax, not just the consumption taxes on their products. A legal marijuana industry would grow the economy in the same manner. Banning these industries drives them underground, where none of the revenue is taxable.
Second, marijuana is far safer than either of those two drugs, so it wouldn’t impose nearly the same costs. Alcohol causes thousands of deaths and hospitalizations a year, from DUI’s to domestic violence to alcohol poisoning. Tobacco causes thousands more from lung cancer and a whole host of other negative health side effects. Marijuana poses far fewer health risks. But marijuana is both less addictive and less damaging to one’s body overall than either tobacco or alcohol. As such it wouldn’t make taxpayers pick up the tab for nearly so many hospital visits or healthcare costs.
Third, they ignore the direct fiscal costs of the status quo. Government spends billions on tracking down, prosecuting and incarcerating drug criminals. These criminals are in turn less employable and less productive after getting out of jail, fueling poverty and harming the economy overall. Legalizing marijuana saves money on all of these costs.
Fourth, even if prohibition did help the economy, we must be clear about what, specifically, is hurting the economy under legalization. Drug use doesn’t impose a cost on anybody but the user unless government decides otherwise. The fiscal “costs” of drug use only exist because the government has decided to create them by offering to cover people’s ER visits, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, etc. These costs were not imposed by the individuals exercising their freedoms, nor are they justification to curtail those freedoms. As I said in yesterday’s post, we cannot ignore the middle-man; whenever the taxpayer is made to pay for anything, it’s always the government’s fault.
Bad Prohibitionist Argument #5: “The costs of enforcing marijuana regulations would increase law enforcement costs due to increased use.”
Sabet’s article defends this claim by observing that “(legal) alcohol leads to more arrests every year than do all illegal drugs combined. Driving while drunk, liquor law violation, and public drunkenness result in over 2.5 million alcohol-related arrests every year. That isn’t to say that current drug policies aren’t also costly to the criminal justice system. They are. But that is precisely why we need smarter enforcement policies — not legalization, which would very likely compound the current costs.”
But this is also a ridiculous argument, for two reasons. First, the statistic cited to defend it ignores the scope of the drugs it compares. Alcohol is a more traditional and far more widely used drug than marijuana or any other recreational drug, regardless of its legal status. There is no evidence to suggest that legalizing marijuana would increase its use so much that the number of pot users would match the number of alcohol users, and there is also no evidence that a given marijuana user is equally as likely to commit crimes (besides, of course, the status quo crime of having used marijuana!) as a given alcohol user. Comparing absolute arrest totals between legal and illegal drug users at a given time is a meaningless statistic.
What makes much more sense is to compare the effect of prohibition on arrest totals and law enforcement costs within the same drug. And when you consider the per capita costs of alcohol during prohibition vs. what they are today, they have got to be far lower today. Alcohol prohibition is estimated to have cost the government $11 billion, without significantly reducing consumption (or drunk driving, or underage drinking, or all the other social side effects of alcohol). This also makes intuitive sense, because the regulations Sabet worries would be expensive are already being enforced under prohibition. Yes, even if marijuana were legalized, some users might need to be arrested for things like driving high or underage smoking. Yes, it would cost money to enforce those regulations. But those things are already illegal! They’re already costing law enforcement money. For Sabet’s claim to make any sense, the increase in people arrested for those things thanks to legalization must exceed the 800,000 people arrested annually for marijuana possession or trafficking – which, considering the aforementioned numbers, is highly unlikely.
Misleading arguments like the two above cannot change the truth: forcibly preventing people from doing relatively harmless things is costly and ineffective.
Bad Prohibitionist Argument #6: “Legalization wouldn’t actually decrease crime.”
“there is no guarantee that marijuana legalization would significantly diminish the underground market for marijuana. In a legal market, where marijuana is taxed, the well-established illegal drug trade has every incentive to remain. Today’s thriving underground market for tobacco is a good example of this. The drug trade is so profitable that even undercutting the legal (taxed) market price would leave cartels with a handsome profit.”
How somebody can doubt that the underground market for marijuana would “significantly diminish” in the face of a legal corporate competitor is beyond me. In the status quo, the drug trade is only “so profitable” because the cartels are shielded from competition by prohibition’s artificial restriction of supply. Banning an entire industry gives those willing to break the law a monopoly on that industry, enabling them to sell that product at a lucrative markup. If pot were legal, those supply restrictions wouldn’t exist, and the monopoly would be gone. There is unanimous consensus among economists that the resulting competition would make the price (and therefore, profitability) of marijuana plummet – far more than any tax could possibly make up for. There is no “handsome profit” for cartels in competing with a corporation that doesn’t need to spend money on such overhead as underground tunneling, bribes, blackmail, law enforcement evasion, henchman, weapons, and ammunition. And even if there were, it’d certainly be much less profitable for cartels than it is today.
The analogy to the tobacco industry is simply absurd. Yes, some people try to avoid the tobacco tax by selling it under the table, or buying in bulk and then selling packs individually at a tax-free price. But you know what they’re not doing? Using machine guns to kill policemen and rival gang members over tobacco turf. There are no “tobacco cartels”, because once something is legal, and corporations can mass produce it efficiently, the people who want it don’t need to turn to gun-toting strongmen in order to get it. Comparing these two “underground markets” as if they’re analogous is an insult to the millions of people unjustly killed or imprisoned, and the millions of families and thousands of communities, torn apart by the war on drugs.
Sabet also worries that “Homeowners growing pot in their backyards will become targets for pot thieves and attendant crime.”
Oh, so kind of like they are now? What Sabet forgets is that this already happens all the time, because there is already a thriving group of private marijuana growers. What he also forgets is that in a legal market, these growers would have an avenue of legal recourse if their property is stolen, instead of resorting to their own devices. And what he really forgets is that after legalization, these people will only have to hide their cannabis plants from civilian thieves, rather than from both civilian and government thieves. In the first situation, they could potentially lose their homegrown pot. In the second, they lose their pot, their freedom, their money, their chances at a good job, years of their life, etc. Funny way of protecting them, don’t you think?
Bad Prohibitionist Argument #7: “Marijuana has such detrimental health effects that we need to protect people from themselves.”
As a libertarian, this argument makes my blood boil no matter what context it’s used in. The general idea that government should ever protect people from themselves is belittling to me. It is directly antithetical to individual liberty. And the specific idea that locking drug users in jail for decades and then saddling them with a felony record for the rest of their lives is somehow done for their benefit is outrageous bullshit – period, end of discussion.
But even if it weren’t just wrong on face, when it comes to marijuana, the truth is that there’s simply not much to protect people from in the first place. The minimal side effects of marijuana align much more closely with the warning label on a bottle of medicine than they do with the devastating, deadly, effects of many harder drugs. Reason magazine asserts that “decades of scientific research [show] that marijuana is relatively safer than both alcohol and harder drugs (including many prescription pills).” The highest estimates put the total number of deaths in which marijuana was a factor between 1999 and 2007 at a mere 26 deaths. Compare that to the number of deaths from alcohol poisoning, DUI, or crime that alcohol played a role in over that span! This evidence confirms our intuition that marijuana is used less often and in different settings than alcohol, or else has a less inhibitory effect on motor function.
Other studies cite decreased IQ or lower performance on tests resulting from marijuana use among teens with developing brains. The first problem with that is that correlation does not equal causation; perhaps those with bad test scores or low IQ’s are simply more likely to have tried marijuana for other reasons. The second problem is that, as I said earlier, teenagers would be less able to acquire pot in a legally regulated market than they are today. No similar effects have been found among those who began using marijuana as adults (at least not in studies that I know of).
Whether marijuana smoke contributes to cardiovascular problems, respiratory problems or lung cancer is still debated in the medical community, but all agree that it contributes far less to these things than does tar-filled tobacco smoke. And even if these reports are true, who cares? Why is that your business? How many times have you heard a new study come out that says “____ food may elevate the risk of _____ health problem”? Probably hundreds. From egg yolks to high fructose corn syrup to cholesterol, there are lots of unhealthy things in this world, and many other contested health effects which scientists dither back and forth about. None of that is reason to ban those things. Whether it’s pot, alcohol, eating a big mac, or skateboarding without a helmet, if people believe these activities will enhance their lives they should be free to do as they choose.
Arguments like these help validate entrenched traditional mindsets, but they don’t stand up to closer inspection. Unfortunately, they are seldom inspected, because the victims of such ideas are disenfranchised. As Matt Welch of Reason puts it, “No politician ever lost an election by alienating the ex-con vote (in no small part because in a dozen states, ex-felons who have completed parole are still permanently barred from voting). It is no accident that the people most likely to languish behind bars—poor minorities, sex offenders, illegal immigrants—tend to be among the most reviled groups in American society.”
Eventually, government nannies will run out of excuses, and will be forced to confront the fear and intolerance that drives their policies. The subconscious thought process that truly motivates a prohibitionist reads something like this: “I think drugs are bad, and I’d prefer that those who use them not be around. So I’m more comfortable if we use the force of law to impose that preference on society – so long as nobody else imposes their preferences on me.” The sooner America discards this backwards and oppressive mindset, the better.