The Consequences of Legalizing It

California shows few problems associated with medical marijuana industry.

Posted Nov 03, 2013

In what turned out to be one of my most popular blogs, almost two years ago I argued for the top ten reasons marijuana ought to be legalized. Apparently, that argument was somewhat controversial, as the editors of PT felt the need to place a disclaimer on the blog, something they have not done regarding my other opinions. Although it might be controversial, it is nevertheless undeniable that the blog was a small blip in a growing Zeitgeist, and the trend toward legalization has been quite remarkable over the past 20 months. The most recent poll finds attitudes toward legalization at their highest levels, with 58% of the US population supporting it. Two states, Washington and Colorado, have taken the remarkable step of legalizing recreational use outright, such that adults can legally possess of up to 1 ounce of marijuana. Nineteen other states have laws legalizing medical marijuana in various ways.  

Although I am in support of legalizing marijuana, it is also the case that my position is largely pragmatic, as opposed to ideological. As I noted in a footnote qualifying my argument, “Given the complexity of society, it is hard to predict the consequences a major change like legalization would have, thus legalization should be phased in over time, starting with medical marijuana and decriminalization, which should be closely monitored for societal consequences.”

California is the state with the longest history of medical marijuana laws and thus is a good place to examine to determine the effects of the increased availability of pot. Those who cautioned against releasing the demon argued that crime would surge, that teens would be using, and that the availability of weed would lead to using harder drugs. Although I was/am skeptical, the concerns were plausible, and if realized would certainly influenced my feelings about the wisdom of legalization. Thankfully, we are now in a position to look at some data to see about those conjectures.

A recent article in the NY Times details that none of these fears have been realized. Indeed, the two biggest problems associated with the marijuana industry in California have been “the stench of the plots” resulting in frequent 911 calls to complain, and that the cash-rich farms have been the victims of occasional robberies. There is no evidence for increase violent crime stemming from use (indeed, in general data suggest marijuana tends to lessen aggressiveness), no evidence for increases in use of other drugs, and no evidence for increase use among teens.

In addition, the article reported on an academic study by two economics professors that suggests that many 18-29 year olds substitute weed for alcohol. This is good news, according to the study’s author, Mark Kleinman, who stated: “If it turns out that cannabis and alcohol are substitutes, then by my scoring system, legalizing cannabis is obviously a good idea. Alcohol is so much more of a problem than cannabis ever has been.”

This remains a social experiment in progress. But the data are accumulating that legalization is the right way to go.

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