Legalize Marjiuana? The costs.

13 maggio 2011 David K. Levine e salvatore modica

There is a simple point about legalizing marijuana that seems not to have made it into the debate.

Let us start by putting ourselves in context to say what we think of marijuana. It would be too easy to admit that we tried it, because most of us who are now in the mid-fifties have; a more selective question is “Have you ever bought it”, for which the answer is certainly “yes”. That said, one can debate endlessly the possible ill-consequences of marijuana. It is a relatively light drug for adults, but less so for youngsters. Like all drugs, especially alcohol there is the possibility of abuse. And it is easier for pot than alcohol to become a constant presence in a group of teenagers: to have a drink you usually go to some place, whereas to smoke a joint you just have to pick up the pot from your pocket and roll. Moreover, for some it weakens the willingness to do things, to work, to respect your schedules, and so forth. Along with this there is often a "Why should I care" attitude which in our judgment is not a good thing.

These views, which we share, are - often in exaggerated form, and often with a great deal of hypocrisy by former marijuana users -  popular with many who argue against legalization. However, we do not believe that ethical considerations about personal behavior should form a basis for public action in a liberal State. We subscribe to the  colorful expression that Linus Torvalds used in an interview a few days ago (here): "Ethics are something private. Whenever you use it as an argument for why somebody else should do something, you're no longer being ethical, you're just being a sanctimonious dick-head."

As economists we think more appropriate to approach the problem from a cost-benfit perspective. But a noticeable feature of the long-standing debate on the legalization of cannabis is that people on the "legalize" side always focus on benefits and gloss over costs. There certainly are benefits from legalization: the blow to organized crime; the lowered cost of police and incarceration over drug-related crimes; the reduction in judicial persecution; the additional tax revenue generated from legal consumption; and so forth. Still one must assess whether there are costs that potentially outweigh these benefits. Let us for once as proponents of legalization focus on the costs rather than the benefits. There is of course a great deal of posturing “we must send a signal to youth.” This has the unfortunate corollary “we must do so no matter how great the social cost.”  There is, however, one legitimate cost issue: legalization would reduce the price of cannabis, it would increase consumption - and some of this would come from new consumers. The fact that people who would not otherwise use pot would do so if it was legal must be squarely faced. 

One question, of course, is "how many" new consumers would there be?  This is a bit too blunt, however: from a social cost-benefit point of view not all consumers are alike. Ethical problems aside, the cost of a new marijuana consumer to society is that he may become a less productive, less good citizen. That may sound cynical, but it is a fact. Naturally society will lose more if a highly productive individual becomes a pothead than if, say, a retired person starts to consume marijuana. So our simple point is that the question to ask is not "how many", but "what kind" of new consumers there would be. Are they likely to be those who currently contribute most to society? What then would be the productivity loss to society from new consumers of cannabis? We do not have an answer (you may guess what we guess), the point is that this is the issue which needs to be investigated empirically.

Here are our theoretical leanings. First is the issue of teenagers. They don’t contribute much to society currently of course, but they will in the future, and early consumption of marijuana may harm that future contribution. So we view it as desirable that they consume less marijuana. But: it is likely that illegalization makes marijuana more available to teenagers rather than less! Given that it is illegal also to sell to adults, from a seller's point of view there is no additional risk in selling to minors. For a legal seller this logic is reversed: selling to adults is profitable, selling to minors is forbidden, hence risky.

Second is the issue of people in critical positions, for example, airline pilots. Personally we would prefer that our pilots be sober when they fly us. However, they are easily excluded from consumption by contract and drug-test: they aren’t allowed to fly drunk either.

Third is the point that is perhaps the least obvious. Who is the most discouraged by illegalization? The serious user who incapacitates themselves? Or the light occasional user who relaxes once in a while by lighting up? It seems pretty apparent that illegalization has little impact on the serious user. As potential light users ourselves, it seems equally apparent that light users are discouraged by illegalization. Why go to the trouble - and at least some small risk, mostly of having to associate with some fairly undesirable characters - for something that isn’t going to be an important part of your life anyway? So the likely effect of legalization is few new serious users and many more light users. But the latter has to be counted a benefit rather than a cost.

32 commenti (espandi tutti)

keep up the good work!!!

as a perfect ignorant, i wonder if it wouldn't be interesting to consider your remarks with, for example, the Netherland case. so that it would be possible to have some concrete data about the economic factor...

I stll fail to see why what applies to alcohol should not apply to marijuana: "to have a drink you usually go to some place" is obviously not true, as you can also guzzle litres of liquour locked alone in a room, or take furtive gulps from a pocket bottle. And I thought that the cost/benefits analysis for alcohol had been worked out once an for all in 1933 with the repeal of the Eightenth Amendment.

totally agree with enzo..

my two cents

What then would be the productivity loss to society from new consumers of cannabis? We do not have an answer (you may guess what we guess), the point is that this is the issue which needs to be investigated empirically. 

Here are our theoretical leanings. First is the issue of teenagers. They don’t contribute much to society currently of course, but they will in the future, and early consumption of marijuana may harm that future contribution.

i guess that we could replace "early consumption of marijuana" with pretty much everything:

-watching too much telly

-playing ps3 all day long

-smoking cigarettes

-eating junk food

-drinking alcohol

-...

all these behaviours could hamper the "future contribution" to society of bright, brilliant teenagers, at the margin.  they seem to have a "social" cost in terms of loss of time/health/whatsoever.  

but the only way we can label these behaviours as "costly" is by defining a social optimum, for example: "playing ps3 all day long carries a social cost since we believe the social optimum would rather be teenagers studying calculus and stuff all day long.."  isn't all this a bit paternalistic?

should we let the state decide (by law) that people have to behave in order to maximise their future productivity?

I think the point is that you can't just dismiss lightly similar concerns from people opposing the legalization.

You either prove it's not more harmful than watching too much telly you either have to prove it or leave others the option do disagree.My personal experience is that a little pot has no effect whatsoever, but too much gets people completely disconnected from reality, up to the point you couldn't really tell if they was high or not.

Of course you could also argue that the state shouldn't care about people's behaviour at all, legalizing heavy drugs too, and perhaps change some other stuff like the mandatory use of safety belts in cars. But this is a different issue that would require either a drastic change in how we manage the welfare or accept the idea of free riders that legally spend theyr life getting drugged,assisted by public healthcare and then finally getting a disability pension, all at the expense of others.

You either prove it's not more harmful than watching too much telly you either have to prove it or leave others the option do disagree.

1) in my point of view, if someone (the state) wants to forbid something, the burden of the proof should be on him.. i mean, those who wants the illegalization of marihuana should give proof that smoking weed is actually more "harmful" than drinking alcohol, or smoking tobacco.

2) but that is my precisely my point. what do we mean when we say "harmful"?

if we're talking about money, i could agree that this could be an issue. I can accept limitations of freedom, if my freedom comes at someone else's expense. I could accept limitations to my freedom of smoking cigarettes or weed, because I reckon that smoking is a "harmful" habit in terms of health-related social costs.

(and even in that case, the solution could be (imho) not to illegalize, but to put people under incentives (health insurances, etc))

but the point is that the authors are not talking about real costs of people smoking weed, as can be (future) healthcare costs, or disability pensions. 

instead they're talking about opportunity costs, the cost of the 'missed' income that society doesn't get to enjoy, because i choose to waste my life smoking pot instead of being a brilliant surgeon, or engineer or whatsoever. 

even if it could be proved that smokin pot leads to a less-than-optimal social contribution in terms of personal productivity, should the state forbid it?   

(to me) that seems arbitrary and paternalistic. 

You either prove it's not more harmful than watching too much telly you either have to prove it or leave others the option do disagree.

1) in my point of view, if someone (the state) wants to forbid something, the burden of the proof should be on him.. i mean, those who wants the illegalization of marihuana should give proof that smoking weed is actually more "harmful" than drinking alcohol, or smoking tobacco.

I agree in principle, but this is a political debate, not a trial, and noone has to proof anything to take a stance. Now the majority thinks that smoking is dangerous enough to be banned, and if we want them to change their mind we better have some good supporting fact.

Or some good PR, but I don't see the point (and are not able to) discussing that.

instead they're talking about opportunity costs, the cost of the 'missed' income that society doesn't get to enjoy, because i choose to waste my life smoking pot instead of being a brilliant surgeon, or engineer or whatsoever. 

even if it could be proved that smokin pot leads to a less-than-optimal social contribution in terms of personal productivity, should the state forbid it?   

(to me) that seems arbitrary and paternalistic.

That was clear to me already.But you asked :

should we let the state decide (by law) that people have to behave in order to maximise their future productivity?

If we decide the answer is no, then it's not only about marijuana, but drugs in general and other stuff. And that would have higher costs, both on the cost-opportunity and social costs (which are negligible for THC, not for heroine).

Modern western states already have a somewhat paternalistic and hugely popular welfare system, and this is the context of our discussion, not some libertarian utopy.

For the record, I second legalization of marijuana, and I have mixed feelings about heavy drugs.But I would definitely keep them out of the agenda, it's hard enough to buy support for marijuana alone.

Question: have we already got strong studies on the long term effect of THC? I'asking because I guess that mass consumption of marjiuana is a relatively recent event (60s?), so I'm wondering whether the LT effects of regular consumption are already well known and understood. Tks.

Fairly minor in adult subjects, probably just a small increase in cardiovascular risks. Some debate on possible memory losses, but it is fairly difficult to disentangle the effect of cannabis from other lifestyle issues. Zero chances of overdose/lethal intoxication.

There are some more concerns regarding the use of cannabis by early teens (up to around 15 years old). In particular, it is believed that it could trigger schyzophrenic episodes in young subjects with (genetic ?) predisposition to it. But this is also true for alchool, of course.

All serious studies conclude that the use of cannabis/marijuana is much less dangerous, in terms of addiction, personal health and social effects, then the use of alchoolics, tobacco and prescription drugs.

Question: have we already got strong studies on the long term effect of THC?

here :-)

In this case I'd say LT effects are pretty bad, if you go from writing Helter Skelter to writing My Brave Face... :) But the ST effect looks outstanding, so I would strongly support legalization :)

As a matter of fact, we don't always behave according to cost/benefit analisyses.

E.g. nuclear centrals, nobody knows how much will it cost to open, mantain, close and deal with wastes and accidents properly, but there are so many centrals in the world.

I wouldn't overestimate the benefits from hurting the organized crime. If you have been in Amsterdam, you could realize that after coffee-shop close there are many people starting selling heavy drugs (crac and cocaine and ectasy) that are illegal. Moreover I would guess that the secondary market from adults that legally buy stuff to young people is very fluorishing.

I don't think the Dutch model is suitable to estimate the potential blow to organized crime inflicted by legalization, because it is'nt a legalization but a de facto decriminalization (the proper term is gedoogbeleid, tolerance policy, I just discoverd from Wikipedia). Coffee shop are in a legal gray area, and the way they supply their customers (intensive cannabis cultivation and of course importation from abroad) is illegal.

The Dutch model can help, I think, to evaluate the social cost of such a policy, in terms of soft and hard drugs use between Dutch residents (compared with other European countries). From what I read on Wikipedia (I don't have the time now to check the sources):

In the Netherlands 9.5% of young adults (aged 15–34) consume soft drugs once a month, comparable to the level of Finland (8%), Latvia (9,7%) and Norway (9.6%) and less than in the UK (13.8%), Germany (11,9%), Czech Republic (19,3%), Denmark (13,3%), Spain (18.8%), France (16,7%), Slovakia (14,7%) and Italy (20,9%) but higher than in Bulgaria (4,4%), Sweden (4,8%), Poland (5,3%) or Greece (3,2%).[22][23]The monthly prevalence of drugs other than cannabis among young people (15-24) was 4% in 2004, that was above the average (3%) of 15 compared countries in EU. However, seemingly few transcend to becoming problem drug users (0.30%), well below the average (0.52%) of the same compared countries.[23]
The reported number of deaths linked to the use of drugs in the Netherlands, as a proportion of the entire population, is together with Poland, France, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic the lowest of the EU.[24] The Dutch government is able to support approximately 90% of help-seeking addicts with detoxification programs. Treatment demand is rising

Of course, this could be due to socio-cultural factors independent from drug policy, but still... 

(scusate l'inglese!)

It's the dutch policy itself to just "legalize" the distribuition and not the production. Who else should grow it? Organized crime has the comparative advantage.

I believe the article could be slightly misleading, since it compares existing forbidding restrictions to a reform with no restrictions at all.

But, the existing widespread support for a "war to drugs" suggests there is a strong preference among voters who would rather see drug consumption stay low. Consequently, one should first compare actual regulation with a legalization plus a Pigovian tax (or a "sin tax" if you like), so that aggregate consumption remains the same (this is the approach used for example in Becker-Murphy-Grossman (2004)). Such a reform is sure to bring more benefits than costs.

Then, we could discuss how big a tax on drugs should be. And, eventually, extend existing limitations to alcohol consumptions also to marjuana consumption (to youngsters, airline pilots, car drivers...).

True, we did not specify what kind of implementation we have in mind. I personally have in mind a situation where adult residents may acquire marijuana at specified selling points, proving eligibility with ID. It's different than in the Netherlands, and definitely not of no-restrictions type.

Premising that I generally agree with the content and the framework of the article, I just wanted to point out that it seems to be based on a precise ethical statement, that is: one thing is "good", and therefore has to be done, if the benefits associated to it are greater than its costs (I don't know the exact translation in english, but in italian is "utilitarismo della norma"... I guess it could be "utilitarism of the rule"?). So, maybe, even in this case we are basing public actions on ethical considerations... :)

Though I'm not against the use of cannabis, I think that the article is poor about what seems to me a very important point of view.

You asked "Who is the most discouraged by illegalization?" and answered that "the likely effect of legalization is few new serious users and many more light users." But what is the probability that a light user becomes a serious user? Not-users, light-users and serious-users are not statical groups where people fall inside as a consequence of an original defect. They are dynamically changing groups where people get in and out in consequence of changes in habits, social habits, cultural factors, personal attitude, economic factors and so on. Youngsters that act as light users can become heavy users where an appropriate culture and context pushes/lets them to do so.

It seems probable that, in any population, the number of heavy users grows proportionally to the number of light users. And it seems probable that the legalization of cannabis could facilitate the spreading of a culture that would act as a growth medium for both light and heavy cannabis utilization up to some point of balance.

Why does it look probable to you? Do you really think that strong and light users covarietes together? What's the empircal\theorical base?

"changes in habits, social habits, cultural factors, personal attitude, economic factors"

What model do you have in mind? What social habit forces (are you just talking of mimicry?) youngster to smoke weed?

It looks like you are talking about epidemiology, we are talking of a market with strong informal rules, unknown demand generating process, unknown offer size and SOME diffusion and addiction effect.

What about using the extra revenues from taxes to really monitor the use and restrict access to certain activities such as driving? I am sure monitoring can be made very easy and inexpensive. And what about a pot credit: if you get caught too many times, you lose some of the rights such as access to specific jobs?

That's a bit odd idea, since you do not restrict driving licenses or the access to any jobs according to generic alcohol consumptions (as long as you are perfectly sober while you are actually driving).

What I meant is re-investing the revenues in devices that makes monitoring easy for any DUI, including cars equipped with such a device. It's not a limitation in issueing a driving license, although that could be an option if the "pot credit" gets to zero.

Maybe something is changing

Ho visto ... vediamo, ma non sono ottimista.

La restrizione olandese che linki  esula completamente dal discorso legalizzazione.

L' Olanda, in particolare Amsterdam, si trova invasa da un turismo "poco pregiato" di cannaioli e stanno cercando di limitarlo.

Questo però non influisce sulla politica adottata nei confronti delle droghe leggere per i residenti olandesi.

Sinceramente lo trovo anche giusto: l'Olanda ha fatto una scelta di civiltà non per trovarsi invasa da gente che vuol solo sballare un paio di giorni e poi tornare al suo paese natio dove voterà qualche partito anti proibizionista.

Sono restrizioni a piccoli step... finché non sarà più legale nemmeno per loro. Tieni presente che il residente puo acquistare solo in un coffee shop e tale negozio puo avere al massimo 1500 clienti come dire: non te lo proibisco ma cerco di metterti i bastoni tra le ruote

QUa faccio una previsione: fra 5/10 anni anche in Olanda sarà vietata la vendita della cannabis o con forti restrizioni anche per i residenti.

PS. io ci sono stato e il problema non sono i coffee shop e le canne ma la marea di spacciatori subito fuori dai locali pronti a vederti crack/coca/eroina e questo provvedimento non farà che aumentare il business illecito.

il problema non sono i coffee shop e le canne ma la marea di spacciatori subito fuori dai locali pronti a vederti crack/coca/eroina e questo provvedimento non farà che aumentare il business illecito.

Da quel che mi è stato detto il grosso del "business illecito" è composto da clienti e "operatori" stranieri.

Se ho capito il "proibizionismo" olandese non nasce (se non in minima parte) da una lotta alla "cultura della droga", come direbbe qualcuno dei nostri, ma dal fastidio di avere tossici stranieri sulle strade  del proprio paese.

Quindi immagino che lo scopo del provvedimento sia di far cessare questi "bazar" fuori dai locali e che, ottenuto questo, la spinta "proibizionista" si esaurisca.

Sfido! C'era Vargas Llosa

 

Good analysis, but I think you have forgotten something important here. Among the benefits of legalization, you need to mention the category of users consisting in the millions of people that would benefit from marijuana for health-related reasons. The power of cannabis to alleviate the side effects of chemotherapy are already well known. Less well known to the general public are the tons of both scientific and anecdotal evidence suggesting that cannabis and cannabinoid compounds may help fight a tremendous list of serious diseases and conditions, from chronic pain to MS to Chron’s disease, to even cancer. Yes, there are several people with cancer who are curing themselves, or at least so they say - anecdotal evidence, not scientific evidence, but a lot of it - by ingesting highly concentrated cannabis oil, and in the Netherlands they can grow their own medicine in their backyard. And there are tons of scientific studies out there showing that cannabinoids have the power of killing many varieties of cancer cells in vitro and in mice, plus a couple of studies on humans. Just google it...go to Youtube, Google, PubMed, and search “cannabis cancer hemp oil cannabinoid medical marijuana...” In countries like Italy, a terminal cancer patient risks being arrested for smoking pot to alleviate the pain, and somebody on whom chemo and radiation have failed has to go all the way to Holland, Oregon or Colorado to get his last chance of survival, or otherwise has to face serious legal risks. All this is not only morally disgusting; it is totally nonsensical from an economic point of view.  If more people were aware of the medical benefits of marijuana, legalization would only be a matter of time. And let me add something: for what I just said, I would not only want to see complete legalization, with obvious restrictions as it happens with alcohol (oh, BTW. there were also some studies showing no correlation between pot smoking and lung cancer as far as I know, and a study showing even some “protective effect”; I’ve read this somewhere, and should be able to find those studies), but also a lot of funds to finance clinical trials on the benefit of cannabis in treating and curing cancer and other diseases. Regarding the risks, I agree with whoever has said that the risks involved in teenage pot smoking are negligible compared to those of alcohol, tobacco, junk food. And deaths due to cannabis amount to zero. In addition, apparently cannabis was regularly used as a medicine up to its prohibition in the US and elsewhere. Seriously, I’d like to learn more, because the more I read about cannabis, the more I ask myself why on Earth this plant has been prohibited in the first place. 

 

Niente da obiettare sulla legalizzazione della marjiuana e magari anche di altre droghe, intesa nel senso che l'uso e/o il commercio di queste sostanze non costituisce un reato punibile penalmente.

Vorrei peró porre una questione accessoria: un consumatore abituale di marjiuana potrà esercitare certe professioni come ad esempio autista di autobus, pilota d'aereo, chirurgo, magistrato? Intendo dire non soltanto astenersi dal fumarla sul lavoro, questo lo do per scontato.

un consumatore abituale di marjiuana potrà esercitare certe professioni come ad esempio autista di autobus, pilota d'aereo, chirurgo, magistrato? Intendo dire non soltanto astenersi dal fumarla sul lavoro, questo lo do per scontato.

Credo che continueranno a fare come fanno adesso :-)

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