Have you ever wondered about the disparity in the way the law treats alcohol, tobacco and marijuana?
As any police officer will attest, a nasty drunk is far more dangerous than someone zoned out on “weed.” As the scientific literature will confirm, tobacco is many times more harmful than marijuana. Not only has the belief that marijuana is a “gateway drug” proved bogus, but for adults, it is less harmful than either smoking or excessive ingestion of alcohol. (No one has ever died of a marijuana overdose, although if your preferred method of indulging is brownies, I suppose the resulting obesity might get you.)
People with addictive personalities will abuse whatever is at hand–alcohol, drugs, even glue. Should we outlaw glue?
The history of America’s war on drugs is too labyrinthian and too racist to recount here, and there are plenty of books and articles on the subject if you are interested in the whole sordid story. Suffice it to say that our mindless war on weed has made the once-profitable cultivation of hemp illegal, prevented study of marijuana’s medicinal value, and not-so-incidentally ruined countless lives (mostly African-American; black people are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, even though both groups use the drug at roughly the same rate.).
But attitudes are finally changing.
In 1969, according to the Pew Research Center, 84 percent of Americans thought the drug should be illegal; by 2015, that number had fallen to 44 percent.
After Colorado became the first state to legalize marijuana, policymakers began to seriously consider a number of issues–especially pot’s potential to generate tax revenue.
Legalization raises a number of questions with policy implications. For example, how can it be taxed? In 2015, Colorado raised $135 million in taxes and fees from legal sales. Another important question: Will states that stop arresting people for selling or having marijuana save money on policing and reduce their incarceration rates? Some 620,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2014, according to the FBI; young minority men were disproportionately targeted. Will more children take to smoking weed? As laws relax and the stigma associated with marijuana recedes, people may use more.
A study from Australia suggests some answers to those questions. The authors looked at what consequences we might expect if marijuana were regulated like alcohol and sold to people above the age of 21. They extrapolated their analysis to include the United States, a country with similar cultural behaviors and economies. Here are some of their findings:
- The U.S. could raise between $4 billion and $12 billion annually by taxing legal marijuana. These numbers are based on a tax levy of about 25 percent, which is what the state of Colorado charges.
- When people have more access to marijuana (through legal and illegal means) more people use it.
- Currently, 17 percent of Australians say they do not use cannabis for fear of legal repercussions; 90 percent of those say that access is not the reason.
Access is evidently not a problem for people in either country; several years ago, an American study found that teenagers in Maryland could obtain illegal marijuana (and other drugs) much more easily than they could obtain legal but regulated alcohol. Legalization and regulation similar to that currently in place for liquor stores would probably reduce today’s easy availability.
The authors determined that a tax rate of 25% wasn’t high enough to incentivize a black market. One of the (many) negative consequences of drug prohibition is the fact that it makes an illegal market profitable.
In the U.S., tobacco and alcohol interests have powerful lobbies, so those substances are legal even though they do far more harm than marijuana.
Just to be clear, I don’t advocate prohibition for any of these; we’ve seen how well that works. Substance abuse is a public health problem; it shouldn’t be a matter for the criminal justice system.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we based public policy on evidence and analysis, rather than moralism and money?