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Don’t Blame Legalized Weed for Society’s Woes

Prohibitionists like to blame legal cannabis for everything from rising crime to our national mental health dilemma. The truth is just the opposite, argues Katherine Mangu-Ward.

It’s been a little over a decade since cannabis was first legalized recreationally in the United States—in Colorado and Washington state in 2012, and as of today in 24 states and the District of Columbia—and Americans have never been more pro-weed. In a Gallup poll from last November, a record high (no pun intended) of 70 percent of U.S. adults came out in support of the federal legalization of marijuana, up from 50 percent in 2013 and a miniscule twelve percent in 1969, when Gallup first asked the question. More Americans support legal weed than people under the age of 45 believe in democracy.

But is legal cannabis really such a no-brainer? A recent study found that marijuana use—whether through smoking, edibles, or vapes—is associated with a higher risk of heart attack and stroke. In December a California woman was convicted for involuntary manslaughter after fatally stabbing her boyfriend over a hundred times because of (according to her lawyers) “cannabis-induced psychosis.” 

As more states consider the issue—Florida, Indiana, and Wisconsin could introduce cannabis legislation in 2024—has decriminalization really worked? Or should it be reconsidered with, well, more sober eyes? Today in The Free Press, we present the strongest cases for and against cannabis legalization. Read the argument in favor of legalization from Reason editor-in-chief Katherine Mangu-Ward below. Then read former United States attorney general William Barrand Hudson Institute president John P. Walters make the opposing case.  

As with some cannabis edibles, the benefits of marijuana legalization can be irritatingly slow to kick in. You might wonder if it’s working at all. Maybe you even get momentarily paranoid about whether this whole thing was a good idea. To have a clearheaded debate about legalization, it’s important to understand what has changed since state-level legalization began in earnest—and what hasn’t. 

First, let’s talk about what hasn’t changed much: during the long decades of the drug war, marijuana remained cheap and widely available. This is still true. At no point did the war on weed come anywhere close to reducing supply or demand, despite billions in government spending

Consumption patterns have been surprisingly stable. Sure, the number of adults who now tell pollsters they smoke pot occasionally is up—no surprise that some people are more willing to admit to behavior after it’s become legal in their state. Meanwhile, the long-standing Monitoring the Future survey found that marijuana use among teens has been roughly steady since the late 1990s—with the exception of a precipitous drop during the pandemic, which has interestingly been sustained through 2023. 

Cannabis remains a relatively safe recreational substance; compared to alcohol, it is far less carcinogenic, less addictive, less likely to cause withdrawal, and less likely to encourage violent or risky behavior. It is essentially impossible to overdose on marijuana. 

Violence associated with the marijuana trade continues, largely because cannabis remains a Schedule I substance under federal law, a classification it shares with heroin and LSD. Bringing pot across the border is still illegal. Federal banking restrictions remain in place on otherwise licit businesses, requiring them to rely heavily on cash and therefore making them more appealing targets for thieves. Supply chains are still studded with black market actors, including gangs. 

Here’s what has changed: a majority of every U.S. demographic now supports legalization, including self-described conservatives and people over 55 years old. While this trend predates legalization, it’s notable that the tipping point came after many Americans witnessed the effects of legalization firsthand. It’s hard to reconcile these figures with the prohibitionists’ dystopian portrait of a nation of newly zombified citizens.

Arrest numbers for cannabis-related crimes have fallen. Since the early 1990s, there have been more than 20 million arrests for marijuana—hundreds of thousands of arrests a year, the vast majority for simple possession. Taxpayers shelled out hundreds of billions of dollars for police activity, courts, prisons, border security, interdiction abroad, and dozens of other expensive, misbegotten policy priorities that predictably emerge downstream from prohibition. It’s true that most stops and arrests related to cannabis consumption don’t result in prison time. But they nonetheless impose a massive burden on police and the courts (and thus on civil liberties) as well as distracting law enforcement from other priorities. The benefits of legalization will continue to accumulate as these figures fall.

Today’s pot is, indeed, stronger than it was in the 1970s. Fearmongering about stronger pot has been a staple of the discourse for decades and is an artifact of criminalization, not legalization. When every transaction is risky you might as well get the biggest bang you can for your buck. These are trends that predate state-level legalization. Recriminalization won’t reverse them. Full legalization might.

Another change has been a dramatic uptick in data collection and academic work on the effects of marijuana. The result is an avalanche of studies from which one can cherry-pick terrifying stats—but also robust debates about methodology. The claim that teens who regularly use marijuana experience an eight-point decrease in IQ, for example, has been countered by other high-quality studies that better control for confounding variables and find no IQ effect. Similarly, there is now a vigorous debate about how to separate correlation from causation when it comes to the relationship between marijuana use and mental illness. 

In February, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a draft report noting that “unlike the research consensus that establishes a clear correlation between [blood alcohol content] and crash risk, drug concentration in blood does not correlate to driving impairment.” In other words, we don’t yet have enough information to make sound laws. A return to prohibition will make obtaining funding and data for continued study more difficult. 

Drug warriors have been making the same arguments for longer than I have been alive; it’s no surprise that their baseline position hasn’t changed despite decades of drug-war failure and the sea change in public acceptance of marijuana. 

When I was an undergrad, I attended a lecture by John P. Walters, who was then the Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George W. Bush, where he offered the same predictions of social decline and disaster he still makes today. Around the same time, Walters was holding press conferences blaming marijuana for a teenager’s suicide (even though there was no evidence the teen had consumed marijuana in the immediate lead-up to his death). In the intervening years, the nation has not succumbed to reefer madness but instead realized that prohibitionists failed to demonstrate the efficacy of their approach. 

The notion that the U.S. should return to—or even redouble—the war on weed is precipitous at best. To complain that legalization hasn’t somehow magically eliminated all of the pathologies of the decades-long, deeply entrenched war on drugs isn’t the killer argument that prohibitionists seem to think it is. There are real harms associated with marijuana abuse in the very small percentage of users who fail to use it responsibly. But we have decades of evidence that prohibition failed to reduce those harms in a meaningful way. What’s more, the end of state-level prohibition has clear positive effects on the lives of casual users who no longer need to fear the loss of their freedoms, livelihood, or education.

To eliminate many of the remaining pathologies, what’s needed is more legalization, not a return to the failures of the past. It’s already paying off, and—as with edibles and so many other things in life—will continue to do so when pursued with the right attitude and a little patience.

For the opposing view, read former attorney general William Barr and Hudson Institute president John Walters’ essay: “Weed Is Dangerous. Legalizing It Was a Mistake.” 

Katherine Mangu-Ward is editor in chief of Reason magazine and co-host of The Reason Roundtable podcast.

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