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Thornton: The 'Irrational Policy' That Is Cannabis Prohibition

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Originally published at LiveFreeBlog.com:
The Case Against Repealing Marijuana Prohibition?
by Mark Thornton


The recent victories in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana consumption in Colorado and the state of Washington have given hope for the eventual repeal of national marijuana prohibition. Many states have reformed their marijuana laws, including provisions for legal medical marijuana consumption in more than 20 states.

Despite these positive developments, marijuana remains a Class 1 drug along with heroin and cocaine. There remains widespread misunderstand concerning marijuana consumption, its dangers, and the implications of legalizing marijuana. This lack of understanding is exemplified by a pamphlet published by the prestigious Heritage Foundation, “Legalizing Marijuana: Why Citizens Should Just Say No,” by Charles Stimson (September 13, 2010).

Here are the main “issues” raised by legalizers that the pamphlet tries to debunk:

“Marijuana is safe and non-addictive.” No one should argue that marijuana is completely safe as few things in life are perfectly safe. However, it is relatively safe compared to other recreational drugs. Most of the negative health consequences have been debunked. I examined several lists of “the most addictive drugs” and marijuana was either not on the list or was far down the list.

“Marijuana prohibition makes no more sense than alcohol prohibition did in the early 1900s.” There was no rational justification for marijuana prohibition in the first place, it was simply racially motivated propaganda. The medical community testified against the prohibition, not in support of it. At least supporters of alcohol prohibition could speak to genuine social problems and health concerns about alcohol. Therefore, marijuana prohibition actually makes even less sense than alcohol prohibition.

“The government’s efforts to combat illegal drugs have been a total failure.” Despite enormous fiscal and social costs, the war on drugs has done little to reduce access to drugs or to put a dent in the addiction rate. Meanwhile, crime, corruption, violence and crime associated with the War on Drugs, drug overdoses, and emergency room visits have all skyrocketed.

“The money spent on government efforts to combat the illegal drug trade can be better spent on substance abuse and treatment for the allegedly few marijuana users who abuse the drug.” The problems associated with drug use and addiction can never be solved by law enforcement. These are medical, social, and educational problems and have to be addressed in that manner.

“Tax revenue collected from marijuana sales would substantially outweigh the social costs of legalization.” Marijuana legalization would have many fiscal benefits including lower costs for government, more jobs, and less crime. The social costs of legalization usually stem from cases where there is limited legalization, such as in the Netherlands, so that there are indeed problems of nuisance. This would not be a problem with full scale legalization.

Stimson’s article is so full of misinformation and half-truths that it would be difficult to address them all, but the following paragraph provides a good sample. I would like to mention that I am not arguing that Stimson is intentionally misleading his reader. Most of the information he is relying on comes from government sources and research that was funded by the government and this information is unreliable and biased. If you were a scientific researcher and you approached the government for a grant, you would be far more successful if you sought to determine the problems associated with marijuana and were able to find or make up such problems, compared to researchers who sought to find medical benefits from marijuana.

According to Stimson:

Alcohol differs from marijuana in several crucial respects. First, marijuana is far more likely to cause addiction. Second, it is usually consumed to the point of intoxication. Third, it has no known general healthful properties, though it may have some palliative effects. Fourth, it is toxic and deleterious to health. Thus, while it is true that both alcohol and marijuana are less intoxicating than other mood-altering drugs, that is not to say that marijuana is especially similar to alcohol or that its use is healthy or even safe.

I have never known of marijuana to be associated with “addiction.”[1] Only a fraction of the millions of Americans who have tried marijuana have become regular users and less than 10% of “users” become “dependent.”[2]  Anecdotally, the people I have known who might be considered “dependent” seem to me to be using marijuana in a similar way that people who take psychoactive and stimulate prescription drugs, but with fewer side effects and episodes of violence, and probably less dependence.

It would be hard to argue that marijuana consumption, however little, does not make you intoxicated. Since the War on Drugs began, the THC potency of marijuana has increase ten times or more and the CBD potency has decreased to almost nothing, so that even small amounts will get you “stoned.” Prior to the War on Drugs, low potency marijuana got you “high” but only briefly intoxicated. But all of this is beside the point. Unless your day job is an NFL football player or professional weightlifter, one drink of alcohol (e.g. 12 ounce can of beer) makes you officially intoxicated by the government.

Marijuana having no known healthful properties is government policy, or propaganda, not science. Stimson does admit that marijuana has palliative effects, by which he means that it relieves pain and anxiety, helps you sleep, stimulates your appetite, etc. In other words, if you are really sick, marijuana is one of the best things to help your body heal itself and it comes with no harmful side effects and at very low cost. But even when Stimson was writing in 2010 the government knew that marijuana was a potential cure for many health problems other than glaucoma, including various types of cancers and tumors.[3]Since that time we have learned that marijuana, as well as its non-intoxicating variety CBD[4] have the potential to be a cure or treatment for an increasing long list of diseases, ailments, and cancers. It may not be perfectly safe, but try telling that to parents whose child is dying from a brain tumor or uncontrollable seizures.

Marijuana’s “toxicity” and deleterious effects on health are almost entirely a fabrication. To get the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 passed people were told that marijuana would kill you, make you insane, and lead you to commit violent and brutal crimes against random individuals. Government researchers and bureaucrats have since retreated to less sensational and more nebulous health problems related to the lungs[5] and brain. However, even the National Academy of Sciences’s Institute of Medicine concluded that "There is no conclusive evidence that marijuana causes cancer in humans, including cancers usually related to tobacco use."[6] Again, marijuana is not perfectly safe, but it turns out that the government’s hysterical propaganda is just that.

Stimson then goes on to ask the following “unanswered” questions. Many of these questions have been recently been answered in Colorado and Washington, but let us point out that the paths chosen in those states are not the only paths and that other approaches might work even better. To take an “extreme” example, what if those state governments did nothing to license, regulate and tax or otherwise intervene in the newly legalized marijuana business? Some people might complain—“How do I know that the legal marijuana products are safe?” Well, those people might be deterred from consumption until entrepreneurs entered the market, established safe products, earned a reputation, provided assurances, guarantees, etc. That would be a good thing. Among the important questions left unanswered are:

“How would the state law fit into a federal regime that prohibits marijuana production, distribution, and possession?” State law would be in conflict with federal law. States would simply not enforce the previous laws and the federal government would be free to enforce its laws anywhere it sought fit. They would have the choice to enforce a law that was rejected by voters or politicians of a state.

“Would decriminalization, especially if combined with taxation, expand market opportunities for the gangs and cartels that currently dominate drug distribution?” No. Prohibition is what creates the black market, drug cartels, and drug gangs in the first place. Legalization can only reduce black market profit opportunities. Taxation would indeed reduce the benefits of legalization by keeping some black markets open for business.

“Would existing zoning laws prohibit marijuana cultivation in residential neighborhoods, and if not, what measures would growers have to undertake to keep children from the plants?” Growers would face enormous legal liability if they created a positive nuisance of growing marijuana in the open because it might attract minors who did not have legal access to marijuana. In their self interest they would have to grow marijuana in a secure facility.

“Would transportation providers be prohibited from firing bus drivers because they smoke marijuana?” No. They could make that a condition of their employment just as airplane pilots and truck drivers are today.

It is also important to note that other such “unanswered” questions have perfectly reasonable and workable answers:

In short, marijuana prohibition is the most irrational policy in history. Its destructiveness is only exceeded by real wars and fiat money. Marijuana prohibition was enacted and has been maintained by lies and propaganda. Fortunately, it seems the good guys will win the battle to repeal it.

[1] http://archive.lewrockwell.com/armentano-p/armentano-p24.html
[2] http://archive.lewrockwell.com/orig5/armentano-p3.html
[3] http://archive.lewrockwell.com/armentano-p/armentano-p29.html
[4] Apparently CBD actually reduces the intoxicating effects of THC.
[5] http://archive.lewrockwell.com/armentano-p/armentano-p22.html
[6] http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=6376


Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for Mises Wire and The Austrian, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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