Matthew Yglesias makes a true statement but draws what I think are two false inferences from it:
It’s true that “the new public service ads the government has out to denounce the weed all make reference to things (the risk of jail time, the associated violence, etc.) that are caused by criminalization rather than marijuana use itself.” But that doesn’t prove that “making [marijuana] illegal is helping no one and harming many” and that, therefore, “the campaign against marijuana makes no sense at all in any of its manifestations.”
Most of the arguments made in favor of keeping cannabis illegal are no better than the ones Matthew cites. I take on one of them here. And it’s true that much of the damage done by cannabis results from its illegality.
But it’s not true that it’s harmless, or that the current laws don’t reduce its use.
Cannabis is substantially more habit-forming than most non-drug-warriors believe; of all those people who have smoked it at least five times, roughly a tenth go on to some extended period of heavy daily use. As an academic acquaintance (whose libertarianism makes him a supporter of legalization despite his personal experience) put it, “I’m just like all those politicians. I only used marijuana a single time, and I deeply, deeply regret it. The single time was from the spring of 1963 to the fall of 1969.”
Being a pothead isn’t nearly as bad for you, or for the people around you, as being a drunk. It doesn’t cause violence, it doesn’t rot your liver, and, for most people, the period of continual intoxication passes after several months and doesn’t return. But some people — everyone my age knows a few — get caught in very-long-term patterns of dependency, and even the shorter period is nothing to write home about, putting aside the risk of being busted. If it happens to coincide with, say, the tenth grade — and cannabis initiation happens much earlier now than it did twenty years ago — some schoolwork, and some emotional growing-up, are likely to be missed, and not all of what’s missed is going to be made up later.
The claim that the laws don’t reduce use — which Matthew doesn’t make explicitly, but which would have to be true for it to be the case that prohibition benefits no one — is thoroughly implausible, though the extent of the increase in use that would result from legalization would depend on the details (tax level, distribution system, marketing restrictions, age restrictions, potency and quantity restrictions) of the legal regime that replaced prohibition. Even as an illegal drug, cannabis is cheap on a per-hour-intoxicated basis (probably something under a dollar for a user who hasn’t built up a tolerance), which would limit the impact of a price decrease on consumption levels. Still, the stuff that now sells for $150-$300 an ounce would presumably be more popular if it cost a tenth of that or less, which would be the (pretax) legal price. There’s no reason to think that cannabis demand is completely price-inelastic. Moreover, legality would make the stuff easier to come by and reduce the formal and informal social consequences of smoking. Even the poorly-enforced regime of alcohol prohibition reduced the amount of alcohol consumed by something between half and two-thirds.
If marijuana proved to be a substitute for, rather than a complement to, alcohol (the studies conflict) then making it legal would probably reduce crime and accidents. Legalizing it would also reduce the population behind bars by about 60,000, or 3%. Legal cannabis would eliminate a $10 billion per year illicit market, which even if its contribution to terrorism is negligible is still a noticeable social headache, and get several million people whose only current criminal activity is using pot back on the right side of the law: not a negligible benefit, in my estimation.
But if that meant that the current population of 2 to 3 million wake-and-bake potheads tripled, I’m not sure that would be a good trade. And legalization on anything like the alcohol model could easily lead to such an increase. Just think what the people who have convinced so many American kids to smoke tobacco cigarettes and drink beer could do if given free rein to market what in some ways is a much more attractive product. A legal cannabis industry, like most industries, would be heavily dependent on its steady, high-volume customers: the frequent flyers. (In the case of alcohol, 50% of the total industry volume goes to people who average four drinks a day, year-round, or more.) That means that a legal pot industry would be in the business of creating and sustaining potheads. The free market is a wonderful thing, but you don’t want it working against you in a situation like that.
If I got to make the laws, I think I’d make selling cannabis, or trading it for anything of value, a crime, but legalize growing your own, using it, or giving it away. That wouldn’t eliminate sales activity entirely, but it would eliminate mass-marketing. Yes, I can think of a bunch of objections to a “Grow your own” policy, but it may still be the least bad of our options.