Harkening back to the days of “Reefer Madness,” proponents of marijuana criminalization have tended to frame their arguments in terms of protecting the public from a supposedly dangerous health hazard. But new research concludes that, in reality, legalizing marijuana improves public health.
In a paper recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, economists D. Mark Anderson and Daniel I. Rees review dozens of studies investigating the health consequences of medical marijuana laws. They also evaluate recreational marijuana legalization (though data are more sparse in this area). Here are three of the key ways they conclude that legalization improves public health outcomes.
1. Life-Saving Reductions in Tobacco Consumption
Marijuana does have health consequences that people should keep in mind when making personal consumption decisions, but essentially nobody directly dies from it. Traditional cigarette smoking and tobacco consumption, on the other hand, cause lung cancer—which kills roughly 150,000 Americans every year.
So, anything that meaningfully reduces traditional cigarette smoking is likely to save lives. And this new research shows that not only is there “little evidence that legalization has encouraged the smoking of tobacco,” as critics predicted but “if anything, it has discouraged its use.”
One study cited found that medical marijuana laws are associated with a 6 percent decrease in cigarette use among teenagers and a 12 percent drop in frequent teen smoking. Another concluded that “Legalization of recreational marijuana is associated with a 12% decrease in tobacco demand.”
2. Reduced Alcohol Use and Traffic Deaths
While the proliferation of legal marijuana may lead to increased consumption, this isn’t necessarily a net negative for public health. Indeed, the new paper concludes that marijuana often serves as a substitute for alcohol, the use of which contributes to roughly 95,000 deaths in the US annually.
It cites studies finding that the legalization of recreational marijuana is associated with a five percent drop in demand for alcohol and a 20 percent decrease in binge drinking, including among college students. Meanwhile, medical marijuana laws are associated with a 13 to 15 percent decrease in alcohol-related traffic deaths, per one of the studies reviewed.
3. Declining Violent Crime
The criminalization of marijuana has fueled black markets and gang activity, resulting in more violent crime. So, it’s not surprising that this paper finds that “Studies... provide strong evidence that legalization reduces non-drug crimes.”
It cites research showing that the opening of legal dispensaries is associated with a 19 percent drop in overall crime. Another study found recreational marijuana legalization corresponded with a 15 to 30 percent drop in rapes and a 10 to 20 percent drop in theft.
The Takeaway: Results Matter Infinitely More Than Intentions
There’s little doubt that many policymakers and voters who support the criminalization of marijuana earnestly hope to protect the public. But, as Nobel-prize-winning economist Milton Friedman famously said, “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.”
Intentions and rhetoric make for great campaigning; not great governance. Or, as economist Robert P. Murphy wrote for FEE.org, “It’s not enough... to endorse legislation that has a nice title and promises to do something good. People need to think through the full consequences of a policy, because often it will lead to a cure worse than the disease.”
Criminalizing marijuana has indeed led to a “cure” far worse for public health than the “disease.” And now we know that abandoning this failed policy would literally have life-saving results.