The Pros and Cons of Legal Pot

Marijuana may be no worse than tobacco or alcohol, but society could be forced to pay the added healthcare costs from increased use.

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Coloradans and Washingtonians voted themselves unprecedented personal freedom on Tuesday.

The debate over the legalization of marijuana certainly has had its comical moments. When Colorado earlier this month passed a referendum legalizing pot, headline writers and local TV newscasters could not resist references to "Rocky Mountain High." The state's governor, John Hickenlooper, warned residents not to break out the Cheetos and Goldfish just yet, noting that the feds take a dim view of marijuana possession, which is still against federal law. And it was indeed amusing to watch allegedly serious television reporters act as though they didn't even understand the connection between marijuana smoking and the munchies.

Both Colorado and Washington State have approved referenda legalizing marijuana, and California has long been ahead of the pack with medical marijuana laws. But is it a good idea?

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Marijuana Use Be Legalized?]

Marijuana is not a dangerous drug, in the way that narcotics and other hard drugs are. People don't stab people on the street for the cash to buy a joint, the way they might if they were addicted to crack or heroin. Pot smokers tend to be lethargic, not violent. Even when I was in junior high school and indoctrinated with a very strong antidrug message, the worst my health teacher could say about marijuana is that it "leads to other drugs." Pot, we were told in code, was probably not much worse than alcohol. Some people would abuse it, and some would use it infrequently and recreationally, and would not end up causing harm to themselves or others. If marijuana is no worse than alcohol, why ban it? Good question—except it begs another: Do we really need another problem like alcohol abuse on our hands? Do we want to add to the DUIs and DWIs that are alcohol-fueled with those caused by use of marijuana? If pot were legal, would more people use it more frequently, creating a problem of a size we had not anticipated and could not control?

There's a stronger financial argument for legalizing marijuana. It is an utter waste of money and resources to arrest and prosecute people for marijuana possession, and cash-strapped states have better use for money, courts, and prison space. Legalizing pot could actually help reduce the criminal element, since no one would have to interact with the criminal community to get it. The substance could not only be sold in a controlled and licensed manner, but it could be taxed—bringing in substantial amounts of money to states.

[See a collection of political cartoons on healthcare.]

But the same argument could be made about tobacco, which is as dangerous as many drugs and legal in part because it would be politically impossible to destroy the tobacco industry. True, cigarette smokers do not get stupid and crash cars into trees, but they still kill themselves and others by ingesting and exhaling toxic smoke. And while cigarette taxes indeed bring cash to local governments, we all end up paying dearly for the added healthcare costs of caring for smokers with emphysema, lung cancer, and other ailments.

It may not be fair to subject marijuana to a higher legal standard than alcohol or tobacco. But it may be a way to prevent a third series of healthcare crises.

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