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Reefer Madness 2014

Daniel Bier

The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus has written an interesting column on pot legalization. Marcus purports to debunk the "myths of smoking pot," implying support for the war on drugs.

The argument fails spectacularly, but it's worth dissecting.

First, Marcus never actually debunks any myths about pot, of which there are many. She creates a straw-man argument for legalization that rests on the idea that "pot is totally harmless." Then she links to studies on the DEA's website that easily refute that claim. Down goes the straw man. Of course, no one claims pot is totally harmless.

But she spends a lot of her column quoting Nora Volkow, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, who is "anxiously watching" our "risky social experiment" with legalization. Never fear, Marcus writes, Volkow's "passionate determination ... melded with a scientist’s evidentiary rigor" will set us straight:

For those who argue that marijuana is no more dangerous than tobacco and alcohol, Volkow has two main answers: We don’t entirely know, and, simultaneously, that is precisely the point.

“Look at the evidence,” Volkow said in an interview on the National Institutes of Health campus, pointing to the harms already inflicted by tobacco and alcohol. “It’s not subtle—it’s huge. Legal drugs are the main problem that we have in our country as it relates to morbidity and mortality…And it’s not because they are more dangerous or addictive. Not at all—they are less dangerous. It’s because they are legal…The legalization process generates a much greater exposure of people and hence of negative consequences that will emerge.  And that’s why I always say, ‘Can we as a country afford to have a third legal drug? Can we?’”

The first assumption is that decades of prohibition policies have been successful at significantly reducing access to marijuana. There is no evidence of this. According to government surveys, over 110 million Americans admit to having used marijuana. Over 30 million have used it in the last year, and over 18 million in the last month. In one recent study of high school students, about 40 percent admit trying pot, and 20–25 percent report regular use.

Second, Volkow's grasp of the economics involved here is tenuous at best. Yes, other things equal, if cannabis becomes cheaper, quantity demanded will increase. But this doesn't necessarily imply either that pot use will become a lot more prevalent or that total drug use (including tobacco and alcohol use) will go up.

How can this be? Because while drug users might consume more drugs, non-users will not necessarily become users. I don't participate in the plutonium market, so if prices halve, my consumption of the radioactive element will still be zero. Culture, preferences, and opportunity costs all matter. While international comparisons can be problematic, it is interesting to note that the Netherlands' de facto legalization of cannabis has seen stable or declining rates of use for decades.

Moreover, pot and alcohol might be substitutes for each other: Making pot illegal might simply be driving people to drink. Under legalization, we could see pot consumption replace, rather than add to, alcohol consumption. It's not a simple matter of multiplying marijuana use under legalization and then adding the extra social costs. We live in a dynamic world, and Volkow's triumphant rhetorical question ("Can we as a country afford to have a third legal drug?") is facile, simplistic, and unscientific.

Returning to Marcus’s statement that “we don't know ... and that is precisely the point," it is ludicrous that anyone who claims to be a scientist would try to attack experimentation and reverse the burden of proof like this.

Nixon declared a war on drugs in 1971, and apparently we still don't know if our drug laws make sense. Yet, according to Volkow, it’s not in spite of this fact but rather because of it that we can't “risk” changing said drug laws. And we're not even allowed to run the experiment to find out. Sorry: In both science and the law, the burden of proof is on those making the affirmative claim. And after four decades of "risky social experimentation" with drug prohibition, I think it's fair to say the null hypothesis has not been rejected.

Every year 1.5 million people are arrested for drug violations—three times more than for all violent crimes put together, and over 42 percent of drug arrests are for simple possession of marijuana. Meanwhile, cops are arming themselves like soldiers, gangs and cartels are thriving on black-market profits, and violence in Central America is creating a refugee crisis.

Everything is risky. Why is it that drug warriors insist there must be no costs at all to legalization, while refusing to recognize the clear and continuing costs of the alternative? Why is it that prohibitionists demand absolute proof that legalization would not be harmful, yet violently oppose every policy experiment that could provide it? Why do they assume that individuals are unable to weigh the costs and benefits of drug use themselves? Why do they assume that a quota of zero—rather than regulation, Pigouvian taxes, or Coasean bargaining—is the best way to reduce negative externalities?

Moreover, why do drug warriors give no weight to the rights of minorities not to be targeted, the rights of foreigners not be terrorized, the rights of drug users to know what they're taking, and the rights of Americans to make their own choices? They certainly appear nowhere in Marcus’s or Volkow’s anxious hemming and hawing. These questions really matter to human well-being. Recognizing the costs of prohibition to justice, safety, knowledge, and freedom is not unscientific. Ignoring them—and single-mindedly focusing on pot’s potential side effects—is.

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