Honest and Dishonest Arguments for Marijuana Legalization

Mike Riggs of Reason magazine supports marijuana legalization but has the guts to point out that three common arguments for legalization are fallacious. He is getting blowback from those activists who consider any dissent from the standard talking points to be gross disloyalty as well as from those who simply get angry at anyone who demonstrates that life can be complex. Agree with him or not, the man’s got moxie.

As long as we are on the topic, another lame, prevalent argument for legalization is that marijuana never harms anyone, and the only reason anyone ever seeks treatment for marijuana addiction is that they are pressured to do so by evil drug warriors. If marijuana use were not subject to criminal penalties, the argument runs, no one would seek treatment because no one really needs it.

If this were true, in the Netherlands, where personal consumption and use of cannabis are decriminalized, no one would seek treatment for marijuana addiction. But as Professor Rob MacCoun (a first rate drug policy researcher and a raging moderate in policy terms) has shown, there are over 4,000 cannabis treatment admissions annually in the Netherlands. And the per capita rate of treatment admission among cannabis users is higher in the Netherlands than in all the other European countries for which data are available (From lowest to highest rate of admission, the countries are Finland, Italy, France, Portugal, Sweden, United Kingdom. Germany and Denmark).

Such a finding is unremarkable for anyone with knowledge of pharmacology: Cannabis is a psychoactive drug to which some people become addicted. This causes them problems and therefore they seek health care. But for a disappointing number of marijuana legalization activists, truths that don’t support their world view should be discarded out of hand, and those who speak such truths should be attacked in a manner that would make Rush Limbaugh blush. Hence they continue to say that no one ever voluntarily seeks marijuana addiction treatment because no one is ever harmed by marijuana use, easily available data to the contrary notwithstanding.

However, Riggs is not the only prominent legalization supporter who has integrity. Another is Allen St. Pierre of NORML. I was on a radio show with St. Pierre some time ago and he said that marijuana legalization would not stop the violence in Mexico, would cause a dramatic drop in the drug’s price, would increase substance use by the young and other vulnerable populations, would produce a tobacco industry-like corporation that would be hard to regulate…but he was for it anyway because he thought that those costs would be more than offset by the benefits of preserving the ideals expressed in the Constitution. Although I didn’t agree with him, I admired him for not promising a free lunch, and for making clear how his values shaped his support of legalization. I respect people who will not lie to advance their political views and therefore I respect Mr. St. Pierre.

May the intellectual integrity of St. Pierre and Riggs infect others in the legalization movement. The public debate would be much better for it.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

25 thoughts on “Honest and Dishonest Arguments for Marijuana Legalization”

  1. Wow, pretty harsh. Where’s the call for honesty from the warriors? Where’s the demand that they admit to preferring a world where the fourth amendment is a quaint fiction, police murders of innocents abound, the justice sysem is corrupted and anyone who dares ask for a trial gets the full weight of the law rammed up their ass with a sledgehammer. Oh, and we have a massive gulag maintained by increasingly venal and rapacious corporations hungering for ever more incarceration in privatized prisons. And we have “The New Jim Crow” as Alexander so aptly put it, coupled with the clever ex post facto punishment of barring student loans to anyone who caught a drug conviction, so that teen mistakes can become lifetime stigmata.

  2. @JMG,
    What you said. I’m 62 and I’ve seen the system wreck more lives than pot ever did. The war on drugs is a brutal scam.

  3. First off, JMG makes an excellent point. The drug warriors have extremely dirty hands when it comes to honesty of argument. However, that doesn’t excuse it when legalizers do the same.

    The Reason article is not so honest either. Just one of several examples:

    So while pointing to marijuana as America’s largest cash crop is a good indicator of its popularity (and arguably, the safety of its use), it doesn’t follow that taxation and regulation of the drug in a post-prohibition market would be an unlimited boon to government coffers, especially when factoring in the costs of an aggressive regulatory framework.

    Is Riggs saying that “an aggressive regulatory framework” that regulates the legal sale of cannabis and collects taxes from those who use it would not be a boon compared to the aggressive regulatory framework we have now that attempts and fails to regulate the illegal sale of cannabis through brute force and collects taxes from everyone to pay for it? No, he’s saying it would not be “an unlimited boon”. Straw-man. Nobody is making the argument he’s countering.

    He also inferred that the wholesale price would drop to something similar to tobacco, around $2 per pound. So what? Does anyone think the retail price will reflect that? Or will it get jacked up through heavy taxation like cigarettes? Alcohol and tobacco retail prices do not accurately reflect the costs of production, distribution, and profit. There are also heavy regulatory taxes on them, and every legalization scheme I’ve seen lately acknowledges that fact and applies it to cannabis. You don’t have to go to $2 a pound to take cannabis business away from the black market, a small amount will do fine, coupled with the convenience of being able to run to the liquor store to pick some up. Hell, medical MJ sells well above street prices in non-profit” retail shops and sells well. The consumer is getting better quality and consistency, and reduced chances of being prosecuted for possession, for the extra cost, and is willing to pay for that.

    And Keith says “If marijuana use were not subject to criminal penalties, the argument runs, no one would seek treatment because no one really needs it.” Again, I don’t know who is supposed to be making this argument. I don’t see it in legalization circles, I see the opposite — people argue that taxpayer-subsidized treatment is preferable to and more effective than taxpayer-subsidized incarceration, especially when the taxes for this purpose can be collected from the drug users. The Netherlands example should surprise no-one. When a government replaces a ban on drugs with decriminalization and increased availability of treatment, we should expect to see an increase in numbers of people seeking treatment. No mystery there. I do see arguments that cannabis is not physically addictive, which I agree with, but who doesn’t acknowledge that some people nevertheless develop dependencies that they might wish to seek treatment for?

    Then there’s the St. Pierre comment “marijuana legalization would not stop the violence in Mexico, would cause a dramatic drop in the drug’s price, would increase substance use by the young and other vulnerable populations, would produce a tobacco industry-like corporation that would be hard to regulate”. Stopping the violence in Mexico is another straw-man. The claim is reduction, not a full-stop. Does St. Pierre deny that full-on MJ legalization in the US would have a positive effect on the violence of the Mexican illicit drug market? If so, I don’t think he’s being honest. The rest of these predictions are equally dubious, but I’ve already visited most of those points. I’ll just add that I don’t agree that a regulated legal market would lead to “increase[d] substance use by the young”, as threatening the profits of retailers has proven quite effective with alcohol as compared to unregulated black-market sales of drugs to minors.

    1. I’d like to add that as a teen, it was far easier for me to get marijuana than alcohol.

      Even beer was a special treat, but at any point after age 17, I could have gotten a quarter-pound of MJ within a couple of hours. So tell me again how legalization would increase use among youths?

  4. On the one hand you have reefer madness and on the other crazy stoners. In the middle is the undeniable fact that prohibition causes far more harm both to individuals and society than it prevents. It also costs a fortune. In Britain, Cannabis Law Reform (CLEAR), published independent, expert research last year which showed that a tax and regulate policy on cannabis would reduce all health and social harms and produce a net gain to the UK economy of between £6.7 billion and £9.3 billion per annum.

    Read about it on the CLEAR website: http://clear-uk.org/a-clear-plan-for-the-regulation-of-cannabis-in-britain/.

    Cannabis is a psychoactive substance. It is also a powerful medicine so of course it has the potential for harm. It’s only crazy stoners who suggest otherwise.

  5. 4000 people seeking treatment. Out of how many total population? Out of how many daily users? Compared to what?
    And how many are actually seeking treatment for something else?

    Good lord, Keith, while your overall point is a good one, this post is a mess.

    1. John Beaty: Compared to what?

      Um, compared to the other countries clearly listed in the post…

      1. I meant compared to which other needs, Keith. 4000 people seeking treatment compared to how many seeking treatment for other substance abuse issues?

        1. The 4000 is a number, the comparison is per capita. I don’t know the comparison to other drugs, but the point is that the MJ number isn’t zero even when there is no legal pressure to seek treatment.

  6. The argument is not that legal MJ would result in no harm at all. Who the hell makes that argument? Un-named advocates, apparently. Nobody I’ve spoken to (normal people, not advocates) never make that argument.

    The argument is the legal MJ would result in less (likely far less) harm than the status quo. The obvious parallel is alcohol prohibition, and alcohol is actually more harmful to people than MJ is. We’ve now tried prohibition TWICE. And it’s failed miserably both times. Enough. Yes, we will need to treat those who cannot manage to use the drug responsibly. Heck, we need to do more of that now! So?

    1. I’ve met plenty of humans who told me that pot causes no harm. I think they’re wrong, but then I think that aspirin overdose causes more harm than pot, so what do I know.

    2. The rank-and-file people in the MJ movement smoke too damn much pot. Look, for example, on the longer comments’ threads at the blog of the Marijuana Policy Project. Every second or third person is claiming that George Washington was a high priest in the church of the Savior Bob Marley.

      Another frequent claim is that Big Pharma is working hard to keep the stuff illegal. They can’t get their head around the idea that there are a lot of scared, overprotective soccer moms and law-and-order types who think that mass incarceration is cheap and effective.

  7. The worst legalizer might be as dishonest as the worst warrior. I dunno. But the median drug warrior, from what I’ve seen, is far more mendacious than the median legalizer. The median legalizer spins; the median warrior lies. The median legalizer is no specialist; the median warrior is bone-ignorant.

    Keith seems to be suffering from the false equivalence disease, most commonly seen in comparing team R to team D.

    1. Keith seems to be suffering from the false equivalence disease

      I praised the integrity of the head of NORML, and you think this is false equivalence disease? Come on.

      And as for the implication that it’s okay to do something wrong if you believe that others have done the same thing…I doubt either of us would tolerate that level of moral reasoning in a child…why hold adults to a lower standard?

      1. I was being a bit unfair. I still think that your post was a bit harsh on the legalizers, but you did not compare them to the warriors, either directly or indirectly. I apologize for this.

        The moral issue is a bit more complicated. I do not imply what you thought I implied. I do not tolerate spinning because others lie, or intellectual fuzziness because others are wilfully ignorant. I tolerate spinning because it is not a lie, and an accepted part of legal discourse. (Insert Habermas here.) Whether it should be an accepted part of public discourse is a difficult question, but it undoubtedly is. I tolerate mental fuzziness because it is not wilful ignorance. We often don’t know the limits of our expertise, and can’t morally be blamed for slipping up a bit.

        I would not tolerate the moral reasoning of a child who holds that a common wrong justifies individual wrongful behavior. But simple deontology is . . . for children. And small children at that.

  8. As a young adult who used a large amount of Pot in his adolescence, I can vouch that it is most certainly not harmless. I was able to turn things around and now am attending medical school, but to pretend that it’s benign is insane. That being said, obviously having it criminalized didn’t stop me from using it, so perhaps a more therapeutic approach should be taken.

  9. I have to agree with some of the critiques here.

    Regarding Mexican drug cartel violence, I think it can be safely assumed that under a legalized marijuana regime, the cartels would either vacate the market over time or determine it’s in their interests to become legitimate businesses. Thus, any violence related to marijuana production and distribution would disappear, just as it did with alcohol.

    Now, perhaps the cartels have invested a lot in growing already south of the border. And perhaps under legalized marijuana in the USA, there would be significant mexican imports. And perhaps the cartels would shake down licensed exporters to buy their product from the cartels for a period of time. And perhaps a million other things. But marijuana related violence would be reduced. And since exporting would be legal, there wouldn’t be enough money in it to pay off cops and judges for the sake of shaking down legitimate exporters. Corrupting the entire judicial system requires a pretty decent amount of cash.

    Further, to argue that there would still be violence related to cocaine, heroin, meth, etc. as a criticism of marijuana legalization proponents is pretty strange. To me, that’s an argument FOR legalizing cocaine, heroin, meth, etc. “Yeah, sure, the violence from pot would decrease, but we’d still have violence from all the other drugs the cartels sell. [insert lightbuld] Eurekah! Not if we made those legal as well!”

  10. I think they key is that any measure of legalization must be accompanied by treatment and addiction program increases. So on the fiscal outlay side I’m not sure it will make much of a difference. Healthwise, as in, giving you cancer, destroying you liver, killing you from overdose etc, its a lightweight as we all know, and far less worse than alcohol and tobacco. On the other hand, it’s ability to side track people from any sort of constructive activity is very very high (certainly higher than tobacco or aspirin as another commenter mentioned) and this is particularly bad for teenagers. Becoming a stoner at thirteen in todays world can really mess up your ability to do good things with your life.

  11. I wonder if the per capita rate of treatment admission among cannabis users isn’t in fact higher in the Netherlands simply because cannabis use is not prosecuted here and that those who are addicted to it therefore are more likely to seek treatmentas they do not need to fear the legal consequences from cannabis use? As far as I can tell from the data from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drugs addiction ( http://www.emcdda.europa.eu/stats10/gps ) the (self-reported) rate of cannabis use in the NL is not all that much higher than the European average, and in fact noticeably lower than in France, Italy, Spain and the UK. In that case (quasi-)legalization would not necessarily create a bigger problem of marihuana addiction, it would just make the existing addiction problem more apparent.

    1. @Jack Merchant: Separate topic, but nonetheless, cannabis is only decriminalized in Netherlands (as in Portugal, which is in the middle of the pack in treatment seeking). The data from Netherlands actually suggest that legalization would increase use. In the period when they had aggressive advertising and commercial expansion (as you would expect under legalization), use rates tripled when they did not move elsewhere in Europe. The government then rolled that commercial activity (which legalization brings) back to the decriminalization regime they have today.

  12. I don’t see anyone out there advocating for legalization who will say that fewer people will use pot if it’s legalized. Obviously, removing criminal sanctions from a recreational intoxicant is going to result in more people using it. The more people use it, the more will have troubles.

    Big Deal.

    Considering the cost of keeping the stuff illegal (in terms of police time, court time, incarceration costs and prosecutor time alone) is astronomical, you need to make one HELL of an argument as to negative impacts of marijuana use to make fiscal sense and no one can make those arguments with a straight face.

    The harms of marijuana are fairly minimal, period. Compared to alcohol, they are nonexistent.

    We just had a forum on drug legalization in my town with people from LEAP talking and they didn’t for one second pretend that there are no adverse affects, for anyone, from using marijuana.

    I don’t know which unnamed legalization advocates you’re referring to, but I don’t run into them in any remotely serious venue. The whole legalization argument hinges upon minor harm, not NO harm. and HUGE harm and ruinous expense simply as a result of prohibition. Tax money would be nice too, but even without any taxes, legalization saves us a LOT of money and removes enormous amounts of injustice, primarily directed at minorities and the poor. -How many white middle class kids do you see getting charged and convicted with a permanent record for possession?

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