The move to legalize marijuana is gaining steam in the United States. Although we are still far from full legalization, public opinion has been shifting. An October 2018 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 62 percent of Americans support marijuana legalization.
In the midst of the rush to legalize, defenders of pot legalization have made a variety of arguments. These arguments are often taken for granted and repeated as if they described settled facts. As it turns out, many fall apart under close examination.
Whatever you think about marijuana legalization, it’s important to avoid making bad arguments. There may be good reasons to legalize marijuana. But if there are, the following arguments shouldn’t be considered to be among them.
1. ‘Marijuana Is Harmless’
This is perhaps the worst argument in favor of legalization. It is a well-established fact that marijuana use carries significant negative health effects, particularly to mental health. For instance, a 2017 review of research by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that “there is substantial evidence of a statistical association between cannabis use and the development of schizophrenia or other psychoses, with the highest risk among the most frequent users.”
Along those lines, the authors of one study boldly concluded that “evidence from epidemiologic studies provides strong enough evidence to warrant a public health message that cannabis use can increase the risk of psychotic disorders.” Other studies have found a strong link between marijuana use and mood disorders and suicidal ideation, addiction, altered brain activity, decreased executive function, damage to the brain (particularly white matter), and negative effects on learning, memory, and attention, among other things. Need I say more?
The science is very clear: marijuana is not harmless. It is a performance-degrading drug that can significantly damage one’s mental health.
“But what about medical marijuana!?” Well, the term “medical marijuana” is misleading because it is not actually the marijuana plant that has medicinal properties, but cannabinoids (namely CBD and THC) found within the plant. Some research shows these cannabinoids can help with pain management, nausea and vomiting, and multiple sclerosis spasticity.
We shouldn’t oppose research and development of cannabinoid-based prescription medicines, provided they go through the same rigorous regulatory process by which other medicines are approved. Indeed, several already exist: dronabinol, nabilone, and epidiolex are all cannabinoid medicines at various stages of FDA approval. While medical marijuana of this kind is unobjectionable and ought to be supported, the raw marijuana plant is not medicine.
We also need to weigh the alleged benefits of marijuana against its negative health effects. Given the strong scientific consensus in favor of adverse health effects, is it really all worth it? And should we really start legalizing marijuana before these effects are known in detail and among the broader public?
2. ‘Marijuana Legalization Is Pro-Liberty’
Many libertarians and a growing number of conservatives argue that legalization is the “pro-freedom” position. Actually, the exact opposite is true. Marijuana use attacks, degrades, and impairs the very thing that allows us to act freely: our brains.
We can’t make free choices if we aren’t in control of ourselves. Someone who is under the influence of an intoxicating drug such as marijuana is subject to coercive forces that interfere with his decision-making. And let’s not forget the long-term effects of marijuana, which permanently inhibits the ability of the brain to properly function.
Human freedom is the product of order, both in ourselves and in society in general. This realization gave rise to the system of ordered liberty and natural law upon which our government is based.
This order is reflected in the human ability to make rational decisions. Choices that are not under the control of reason are not free, but random and chaotic. Since intoxicating drugs interfere with our ability to reason properly, they are the very antithesis of liberty.
The idea that marijuana can be justified by an appeal to freedom or liberty is self-defeating in the same way that drinking seawater to remedy thirst is counterproductive. It is a perversion of liberty that turns liberty against itself. So if you consider yourself a champion of freedom and liberty, then you should oppose marijuana legalization.
3. ‘Marijuana Legalization Will Increase Tax Revenue’
Any tax revenue generated by legalization will be outweighed by its social costs, which are several times greater than its alleged benefits. A recent study conducted by the Centennial Institute looked at Colorado’s legalization regime and found that for every $1 of tax revenue generated by marijuana taxes, Coloradans paid $4.50 to mitigate marijuana-related social costs stemming from the health-care and education systems, accidental poisonings, impaired driving, and increased court costs, among other things.
Along similar lines, a study looking at the projected costs of legalization in Rhode Island found that even by conservative estimates, legalization would incur costs that are at least 25 percent greater than expected revenue. If making money is the goal, then legalization is self-defeating because it will cost more tax dollars than it generates. So if you consider yourself to be a fiscal conservative, then perhaps you should actually be against legalization.
Don’t believe me? Just look at alcohol. Its annual social costs are estimated to be around $250 billion, which is 15 times greater than the amount collected through local, state, and federal taxes. Not exactly a moneymaker, now is it?
Alcohol also causes more crime than all other drugs combined, due largely to its legality and widespread availability. The reason isn’t exactly rocket science: if you make something legal, then you remove barriers to procuring it, which allows more people to obtain it. And the more people who obtain it, the bigger the breeding ground for its negative effects.
So why on earth would marijuana be any different? As a legal drug, alcohol already does enough damage to society. Why we would want to make the problem worse and legalize another intoxicating, mind-altering substance?
4. ‘Alcohol Prohibition Failed, and So Is Weed Prohibition’
The idea that alcohol prohibition was an abysmal failure is a historical myth that never seems to die. Prohibition actually reduced per capita alcohol consumption by around 30–50 percent. Cirrhosis death rates (a good measure of heavy drinking), admissions to state mental hospitals for alcohol psychosis, and arrests for drunk and disorderly conduct also declined dramatically.
As Duke University economist Philip Cook explains: “the Prohibition period was associated with a substantial reduction in per capita alcohol consumption… Mortality rates from alcohol-related diseases were also lower, indicating that the prevalence of chronic heavy drinking was way down during the 1920s.”
Ah, but Prohibition significantly increased crime, right? Wrong. Violent crime remained largely constant during Prohibition. The homicide rate experienced larger increases during the pre-Prohibition period between 1900 and 1910 than during all of Prohibition. Societal and demographic changes occasioned by World War I and increased urbanization during the Roaring Twenties largely accounted for slowly rising crime rates.
What’s more, the number of jurisdictions whose crime rates were being counted also grew during this time, which generated the appearance of rising crime rates. Thus, as sociologist Douglas Eckberg points out, “apparent increases in rates of homicide in the United States between 1900 and 1933 may be illusory.” In fact, there is evidence that Prohibition had a net negative effect on the homicide rate, owing largely to decreased alcohol consumption.
So why did Prohibition end up failing? Historians generally agree that lack of attention to enforcement—and not its impracticality—constituted its downfall.
5. ‘Legalization Will Help Solve Mass Incarceration’
The war on drugs is often blamed for the explosion in prison populations within the past few decades. But this is not supported by the data. As Fordham law professor John Pfaff points out, “a majority of prison growth has come from locking up violent offenders, and a large majority of those admitted to prison never serve time for a drug charge, at least not as their ‘primary’ charge.”
With respect to marijuana in particular, incarceration for mere possession alone is exceedingly rare. Most inmates who are incarcerated for marijuana-related offenses find themselves there because of higher-level offenses, such as trafficking.
According to a comprehensive survey of state and federal inmates, only 3.6 percent of the nationwide prison population were incarcerated for simple drug possession. Out of those 3.6 percent, half had committed a non-drug crime (e.g., burglary or assault) along with possession. Once those are excluded, the number of inmates incarcerated for simple drug possession drops to 1.8 percent of all inmates.
Then out of those 1.8 percent, half had plea-bargained down from more serious crimes. Once further adjustments are made for the type of drug, the researchers found that, at any time in the United States, only 800-2,300 inmates were incarcerated for marijuana possession alone. That makes up a grand total of 0.1-0.2 percent of the entire prison population.
So even if we released every single low-level marijuana offender from prison, it would hardly change the total prison population.
6. ‘Legalization Is Necessary to Stop Police Overreach’
Stories of police departments needlessly confiscating property and SWAT officers conducting no-knock raids over small amounts of weed are often invoked as reasons to legalize. But the connection here is at best tenuous. The alleged problems with police militarization and civil asset forfeiture are not unique to drug enforcement alone. These much broader issues can be addressed without having to legalize marijuana. Criminal justice reform and public health should go hand-in-hand. There’s no reason to sacrifice one for the other.
The silliness of this pro-legalization argument can easily be seen if we apply it to other areas. Have a problem with officers using excessive force during arrests? Solution: stop arresting people! Police surveillance a bit too intrusive? Solution: stop all monitoring! Clearly, the solution to bad enforcement isn’t no enforcement. We should be mindful of the price we would pay in social costs if it weren’t for drug enforcement.
Prohibition comes in various shapes and sizes. During national alcohol prohibition, individuals were allowed to keep small amounts of alcohol in their own homes for personal consumption. It was the sale and distribution that was illegal. So defending prohibition does not mean that you must automatically defend a specific regime of enforcement.
It’s worth mentioning that for the most part, police departments do not zealously search out drug users to bust. Rather, they tend to stumble upon them unintentionally. Most drug arrests happen when an individual is stopped and searched for other crimes. The image of SWAT officers barging into a home for a small baggie of weed is not representative of how the vast majority of police departments approach drug enforcement.
7. ‘Marijuana Legalization Will Solve the Opioid Crisis’
If anything, legalizing marijuana may make the opioid crisis even worse. As it turns out, marijuana use increases the risk of other substance use disorders. Rather than serving as a substitute for opioids, research suggests that marijuana functions as a companion drug that people take alongside others.
A 2018 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry comprising more than 33,000 people found that “cannabis use appears to increase rather than decrease the risk of developing nonmedical prescription opioid use and opioid use disorder.” A 2018 study in Pain Medicine found that “concurrent use of cannabis and opioids by patients with chronic pain appears to indicate higher risk for opioid misuse.” A 2017 study of patients who used marijuana for lower-back pain found that “patients using cannabis for pain relief are more likely to meet criteria for substance abuse disorders and to be nonadherent with their prescribed opioids.”
Marijuana interferes with pain management, such that those who use marijuana for pain develop higher tolerances and thresholds. It is not surprising, then, that many turn to other substances. A 2018 study published in Patient Safety in Surgery found that “marijuana use, especially chronic use, may affect pain response to injury by requiring greater use of opioid analgesia.” Another study, published in The Lancet, found that “people who used cannabis had greater pain and lower self-efficacy in managing pain, and there was no evidence that cannabis use reduced pain severity or interference or exerted an opioid-sparing effect.”
Legalization advocates sometimes cite correlational data indicating that opioid deaths have decreased in states with medical marijuana programs. However, as the editors of the journal Addiction point out, this is like reasoning that because ice cream sales are positively correlated with the number of drownings, that higher ice cream sales cause more drownings. They note that “better‐controlled studies have shown that the relationship between medical cannabis laws and opioid overdose deaths persists when controlling, as best they can using state‐level data, for differences between states that do and do not have medical cannabis laws.”
There you have it: seven bad arguments for marijuana legalization. Let’s have this debate on more accurate terms, shall we?