Monday, September 22, 2014

Marijuana "addiction" is no basis for its prohibition

(I'm very busy this fall and won't have much time to write for leisure, but I just finished an assignment to write a New York Times style Op-Ed on marijuana policy from the perspective of an economist debating the rationality of human actors. It's pretty relevant to things I've written earlier, so I figured I'd post it here as well for future reference).

Earlier this week, Colorado state legislator Mary Jane made headlines by comparing marijuana to soda or candy, arguing that in each case “we should treat people like adults who are responsible enough to make choices for themselves.”

To most Americans, this seems like a common sense principle. Respect for personal autonomy forms the bedrock of the American experiment in individual liberty, and increasing majorities recognize there’s no good reason marijuana should be an exception. Colorado itself is a good example why; from jobs to tax revenue to decreased crime, legal weed has brought with it a whole host of benefits, without any of the fanciful calamities many predicted. We may not think it wise to consume pot or pop in our own lives, but we do generally appreciate the right to decide for ourselves.

Sadly, not everyone shares Jane’s tolerant approach. Legalization’s critics insist on treating marijuana users like roughhousing children, in need of self-protection by a stern and omniscient daddy-state. Their view is often defended with the misleading trope that marijuana is addictive – so addictive, the alarmists warn, that everyday people cannot be trusted to make rational choices regarding it.

Such a claim deserves serious scrutiny if it is to justify incarcerating thousands of nonviolent people. While marijuana is technically addictive in the clinical definition, it’s important to clarify what this means in debates over criminal policy.

Talk of drug addiction is an effective scare-tactic is because it conjures a pretty ghastly set of mental images. We think of quivering heroin addicts scratching themselves in feverish hallucination, or sweat-drenched alcoholics vomiting violently in the throes of delirium tremens. We see mug shots of those who burglarized or worse in desperation to get their fix. We see before and after photos in which healthy looking people are turned into pale, lesion covered street-urchins after just a few years on crystal meth.

This is not what marijuana addiction looks like. The vast majority of marijuana users experience no physical withdrawal symptoms whatsoever upon cessation of use. Even the heaviest and most dependent users experience nothing more than “irritability, sleeplessness, decreased appetite, [and] anxiety” – comparable to the grouchiness, fatigue and headache a heavy caffeine user may experience when she skips her morning coffee. In this way, marijuana truly is more similar to soda or chocolate than it is to Schedule I narcotics, just as the congresswoman suggested.

When prohibitionists spook us with the hobgoblin of marijuana addiction, they knowingly conflate this layman’s understanding with the psychological definition of dependence. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, substance dependence is merely “a maladaptive pattern of substance use, leading to clinically significant impairment or distress.” Diagnosis is made based on a highly subjective set of criteria, like whether the subject is using “in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended,” or spending “a great deal of time” using the drug.

Even under this broadest of definitions, only 9% of marijuana users will ever become dependent – a figure lower than that of legal and more dangerous substances like alcohol, tobacco or caffeine. This alone makes a good case against prohibition. But even if the rate were higher, that such vague and variable mental tendencies should dictate criminal policy seems in tension with our American commitment to free will.

From Netflix to Temple Run to eating Lays Potato Chips, lots of everyday activities might be considered “addictive” in the purely psychological sense. Indeed, scientific studies might conclude that people often watch House of Cards “over a longer period than was intended,”– a finding which many viewers would doubtlessly attest! But when we make lighthearted, half-serious reference to how “addictive” these activities are in common parlance, we mean only that we enjoy them, and so are tempted not to stop once we begin. We do not ordinarily consider such temptation to render us physically incapable of making a rational decision, and we would never invite forcible outside intervention to protect us from ourselves.

The point is that addiction exists only in degrees, and not all degrees are overpowering, inescapable, or necessarily bad. A free society should be strongly deferent to individual judgment about what to put in one’s own body, and a just society should at least be consistent about where on the addictiveness spectrum it draws the line. Compared to many drugs which are and should be legal, marijuana addiction is both rare and tame, making it no reason to continue the deadly, costly, and unconscionable war on weed.

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