The federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act with “a high potential for abuse,” “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States,” and “a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug under medical supervision.” The possession of even a small amount of marijuana can result in fines and imprisonment.
However, things are much different on the state level. There, thirty-four states have legalized the medical use of marijuana and seventeen states have legalized the recreational use of marijuana. The medical use of marijuana is legal in the U.S. territories of the District of Columbia, the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. The recreational use of marijuana is legal in the territories of the District of Columbia, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Guam.
(There were 35 states with legal medical marijuana, but Mississippi’s supreme court overturned the state’s medical marijuana initiative passed by the voters in the 2020 election. There would be 18 states with legal recreational marijuana, but South Dakota’s supreme court overturned the state’s recreational marijuana initiative passed by the voters in the 2020 election).
Although there have been many arguments put forth over the years in favor of legalizing marijuana for medical or recreational use, the most important one is usually missing.
A case in point is two recent articles:
The first article references a paper by two economists that was recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The three life-saving public health benefits of marijuana are:
- Life-Saving Reductions in Tobacco Consumption
- Reduced Alcohol Use and Traffic Deaths
- Declining Violent Crime
The deadliest killer in America is cigarette smoking, but the legalization of marijuana has discouraged the use of tobacco. Likewise, the legalization of marijuana is associated with a drop in the demand for alcohol. And because the criminalization of marijuana results in violent crime, it is a no-brainer that legalization reduces non-drug crime. “Criminalizing marijuana has indeed led to a ‘cure’ far worse for public health than the ‘disease,’” concludes the author.
The second article about the benefits of marijuana can be divided into two parts: health benefits of marijuana and non-health benefits of marijuana. The health benefits include pain relief, appetite stimulation, and help with alleviating the symptoms of glaucoma, Parkinson’s disease, depression, sleep disorders, hypertension, Huntington’s disease, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, PTSD, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, inflammation, Crohn’s disease, tumors, leukemia, cancer, and atherosclerosis. The non-health benefits include reductions in crime and traffic fatalities, improved creativity, and general feelings of euphoria and relaxation.
It is also generally argued by proponents of marijuana legalization that states and localities can raise significant revenue by legalizing and taxing marijuana. Marijuana legalization is often held out as a panacea that will shore up state and local budgets.
Now, there is nothing necessarily wrong with anything in either of these articles. And it is certainly true that taxing marijuana can raise significant revenue. (Whether marijuana should be taxed is another issue altogether that I have addressed here and here.)
But there is something missing in these and other arguments for marijuana legalization that can never be confounded, explained away, minimized, or ignored.
The problem with relying these arguments is that they can turn out to be a two-edged sword.
What if it turns out that marijuana legalization does not reduce tobacco consumption?
What if it turns out that marijuana legalization does not reduce alcohol use?
What if it turns out that marijuana legalization does not reduce traffic fatalities?
What if it turns out that marijuana legalization does not result in a decline in violent crime?
What if it turns out that peer-reviewed studies in medical journals conclude that marijuana does not relieve pain, stimulate appetite, or help with alleviating the symptoms of disease?
What if it turns out that marijuana legalization does not improve creativity?
What if it turns out that marijuana does not result in feelings of euphoria and relaxation?
What if it turns out that the revenue windfall from legalizing and taxing marijuana does not materialize?
But that’s not all.
What if it turns out that marijuana is a gateway drug?
What if it turns out that marijuana is dangerous?
What if it turns out that marijuana prohibition does not corrupt law enforcement?
What if it turns out that marijuana is highly addictive?
What if it turns out that marijuana prohibition does keep pot out of the hands of teenagers?
What if it turns out that marijuana is hazardous to one’s health?
What if it turns out that using marijuana is worse than smoking cigarettes?
What if it turns out that marijuana prohibition has not made criminals out of hundreds of thousands of otherwise law-abiding Americans?
What if it turns out that marijuana arrests do not clog the judicial system?
What if it turns out that marijuana arrests do not swell the prison population?
What if it turns out that using marijuana is worse than drinking alcohol?
What if it turns out that marijuana prohibition does prevent drug abuse and drug overdoses?
What if it turns out that every bad thing ever said about marijuana is true?
What if it turns out that marijuana use can result in death?
None of these things actually matter either way.
Marijuana is first and foremost a personal freedom issue. It simply doesn’t matter what the supposed benefits or harms of marijuana are. And neither does it matter if marijuana use is moral or immoral.
The libertarian position on the government’s war on marijuana is straightforward.
There should be no laws at any level of government for any reason regarding the buying, selling, growing, processing, transporting, advertising, using, possessing, or “trafficking” of marijuana. There should be a free market in marijuana without any government regulations, oversight, restrictions, rules, or licensing.
The government should leave people free to take risks, decide on their own medical treatment, live their lives, and engage in economic activity any way they choose as long as their actions are peaceful, their associations are voluntary, their interactions are consensual, and they don’t violate the personal or property rights of others.
Arguments for marijuana legalization that ignore the personal freedom issue are always incomplete and usually unpersuasive.