Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Legalize Marijuana

There are as we know many unintended effects of prohibiting things that people want. Sure, it's often a balance. Whether we're talking about prostitution, methamphetamine, or 32 ounce sodas there are costs of both legalization and prohibition. It's more complicated than that because various prohibition and legalization regimes are possible. Evidence of the effects of one regime vs. another is generally largely lacking, so a lot of the debate consists of speculation and moral judgments disguised as factual claims.

In the case of cannabis, however, I am fully convinced and I have been for a long time. What we know about alcohol prohibition ought to convince us. I should make it clear that there is evidence -- not definitive but worthy of concern -- that there are long-term risks of heavy use for people under 18 or so. But blanket legal prohibition isn't keeping pot out of the hands of teenagers, and furthermore the causal associations are still impossible to sort out from the evidence. A legal regime that treats cannabis like alcohol -- sold only in licensed outlets and only to adults -- and also regulates potency and labeling (which current regimes in the U.S. don't do effectively, BTW) would do a better job of protecting young people.

We already know about the damaging - and racially discriminatory - effects of law enforcement and punishment. I won't go on about that. But just as outlawing prostitution makes it less safe, outlawing cannabis drives people to alternatives that don't subject them to legal sanctions, but are far more damaging.

Specifically, we have an epidemic of products based on synthetic chemicals that interact with the same neurotransmitter system that THC does, but with far greater potency and unpredictable effects. As the linked NYT magazine article explains, people turn to these specifically because they are readily available in ordinary retail outlets, and won't cause them to fail a drug test. And they can make people batshit crazy, paranoid and violent, as well just plain kill them. Here's a shorter version of the story from Forbes if you don't want to take the time to read the long-form piece.

Here's the thing. It is impossible to suppress these drugs -- spice, spike, "synthetic marijuana" (not), whatever they are called -- because they're easy to formulate in illicit laboratories and the exact chemicals keep changing. But, nobody would want them who could easily and legally obtain real marijuana. The market would disappear. It's that simple.

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