Marijuana is bad, but let’s legalize it anyway

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I don’t smoke pot. Never did (OK, five times—literally). So I don’t have (much) skin in the debate over legalizing marijuana. But I have been thinking about questions that could guide the debate. These questions aren’t about drug control, per se, but about the proper role of the government in regulating trade, morality and public health.

First, let’s separate the credible opponents from the hardliners stuck in amber. These are the puritan moralists, and while I respect efforts to maintain moral standards in public life, puritan morality isn’t helpful in formulating drug policy. The debate has evolved from the reactionary days of “Just Say No” and “Reefer Madness.”

We live in 2017 when plenty of people get stoned on the weekend without bothering to try harder drugs. Anyone insisting that weed is a “gateway drug” is overly focused on protecting the body politic as the Temple of God and insufficiently focused on real dangers, like the opioid epidemic.

The credible opponents are those saying marijuana is addictive. These are physicians and professionals managing recovery centers. Don’t take pot lightly, they argue. It can lead to dependence. It can debilitate otherwise normal, productive and healthy lives. In my younger days, it seemed every artist and writer I knew got high almost daily and functioned well enough, but what do I know? I’m not a doctor or caregiver who sees human nature’s frailest side. If the medical community thinks there’s reason to be cautious, let’s be cautious.

This is important to say plainly, because far out on the purple haze end of the debate are those saying weed is harmless. You get this sense when you hang with enough creative types getting baked regularly. But it’s not harmless, and anyone urging the contrary is misinformed, delusional or experiencing a THC-addled state of euphoria.

So a constructive way of looking at the debate is not whether consuming marijuana is right or wrong, but whether it’s materially good or bad. It’s bad. Period. Not as bad as opioids. Not as good as eating half a dozen Dunkin’, relatively speaking. But certainly as bad as consuming alcohol. So the government has an interest in regulating public health. Everyone agrees on that. The question is how.

Would continuing to criminalize marijuana properly regulate public health? I think we all know the answer. Punitive drug policies have not made a dent in the illicit pot trade, but they have put more black and brown people behind bars than white people though more white people smoke pot. Jail time is no way to regulate public health and, in any event, the threat of jail time has not, despite a decades-long war on drugs, softened demand. Long hard experience tells us people will find a way to sell and consume marijuana whether or not it’s legal.

If illegal weed does little to decrease demand, would legal weed increase it? Intuition tells me yes, and there is some social science to back up my hunch. But we can’t really know, because marijuana is not a part of the formal economy. There are no sales receipts telling us whether demand is high or low, when and where, and by how much. We only know that prohibition has stopped no one who wants it.

But would greater access increase addiction? Yes, probably, but it depends. Access will be easier once legal, of course, but easier access does not necessarily lead to greater rates of addiction. Cigarettes are accessible to consumers of age, but high taxes have proven to be a deterrent, a strong check against the human impulse to abuse drugs. Ashtrays were everywhere when I was a kid. They have disappeared since, because so many have quit thanks in part to cigarette taxes.

Let’s recap. Prohibition does not stop demand. Legal or not, people are going to sell and buy pot. We can’t know if legalizing it will increase demand. We’ll only know if that’s the case over time. And the status quo does more harm than good. Criminal records can ruin lives.

Legalizing marijuana may solve one or more problems, but it may present over time one or more new problems that we cannot see anticipate. And lawmakers shouldn’t see legal weed as a fun new taxable source of revenue. If Connecticut’s fiscal affairs are in disorder, let’s get them in order first. Then we can liberalize the law to allow responsible adults to make up their own minds while creating a safety net for those for whom personal responsibility is impossible.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and a New Haven resident

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