There Are Smarter Ways to Deal With Marijuana Than Legalization
We have other options besides legalization or strict enforcement
October 30, 2012
Because marijuana legalization would expose us to unknown risk—and because there are better options than both "let 'em use" or "lock 'em up"—I join both major presidential candidates and the American Medical Association in opposing marijuana legalization. It is a reckless policy option. But that does not mean we have to be content with the status quo either. There are smarter ways to deal with marijuana than either extreme.
According to the nonpartisan RAND Corporation, legalization would greatly reduce the price of marijuana, thereby significantly increasing use, especially among kids. This is a problem because the brain is developing until age 25, and recently completed research shows that pot can significantly decrease IQ, double the risk of a car crash (according to the most exhaustive review ever undertaken on the matter), and significantly increase the chance of contracting a mental illness. Today's marijuana is not the same stuff parents think back today with nostalgia about—in fact it is about 4-5 times stronger in potency.
Even the supposed benefits of legalization may not pan out. Ironically, under legalization, we could see arrest rates for marijuana actually increase, similar to what we see with alcohol (there are 2.7 million arrests a year for alcohol versus 800,000 for marijuana), as more users drive high or violate marijuana growing and using laws. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the underground market would significantly diminish. In a legal market, where marijuana is taxed, the well-established illegal drug trade has every incentive to remain. Today's thriving underground market for tobacco is a good example of this. The drug trade is so profitable that even undercutting the taxed price would leave cartels with a handsome profit. Marijuana legalization would also do nothing to loosen the cartels' grip on other illegal trades such human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, piracy, and other illicit drugs (marijuana accounts for a minority of revenues gained by drug trafficking groups). Producing marijuana en masse at home is also much easier to do than with tobacco or alcohol. We can expect a thriving grey market.
But these facts do not mean we need to go overboard in our approach. Low-level marijuana users should not be imprisoned for their use, and former users with an arrest record should not be prevented from getting a job or accessing social benefits. In fact, isolating those with an arrest record can be counterproductive, increasing their interaction with the illicit economy. We need to have a sane conversation about marijuana arrests among disadvantaged communities, too, to ensure equal justice under the law.
The good news is that we have more choices than merely enforcement or legalization. We can get smarter about our marijuana policy without throwing the next generation under the bus. Before they become the guinea pigs for a risky policy experiment, voters in Washington, Colorado, and Oregon would do well to remember that.