What If Marijuana Were Legal?

In President Obama’s recent online town hall meeting, one of the most discussed issues was the possibility of decriminalizing marijuana as a way of boosting the economy. Personally I’ve never taken much active interest in the debate of whether or not pot should be legal. I suppose that this is mostly because I’ve been sober for a number of years and therefore wouldn’t be smoking it anyway. Besides, pot is one of the few drugs which (despite numerous past attempts) I never developed any affection for. I vaguely remember eating entire bags of Doritos in one sitting before puking them up and then falling into bed and wishing that I’d bought solid colored sheets since the checkered pattern on mine was making me feel as though I was being driven through an M.C. Escher painting with a serious case of motion sickness. Oh, and also, a sensation that my tongue had been re-upholstered with shag carpeting.

Nevertheless, a recent story on NPR caught my interest. In it, the show’s producers created a simulated world in which marijuana had been legal for two years in the United States. They then proceeded to interview a variety of experts (all of them real) about the hypothetical affects of such a scenario. Their purpose was to make people think a bit more deeply about the issue. Here are some of the points that were raised:

* Despite the expectations of many that legalizing pot would provide a huge boost to our economy, chances are that this wouldn’t be the case. Yes, it would create an additional estimated 20 billion dollars a year in revenue but compared to the size of our deficits, it wouldn’t cure any significant ills. There may be good reasons to do it but the budgetary part is not a crucial reason to do it.- Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard economist who has studied and written about the economics of the marijuana market.

* Legalizing pot would only increase adolescent use. “They’ll start using it sooner now because it looks like it’s more okay, it seems less harmful because they see their parents doing it.” “Do we know how to keep kids from drinking alcohol? No, we don’t. So why would we expect we’d be any better at it with marijuana?”- Rosalie Pacula, co-director of the Drug Policy Research Center at the RAND Corp.

And we should care about that because

* “We know that marijuana use and chronic use, as it is now, in an adolescent population can cause extreme developmental delay…. It can cause memory loss, reduce the ability to concentrate and reduce brain cell activity.” – Dr. Vicki Nejtek, a research doctor who works on drug abuse at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth.

These are only a few of the issues that were discussed but you can hear the entire program here. What I enjoyed about the episode was that although clearly not in favor of the legalization of marijuana, I still thought that they did a fairly good job in presenting the issue realistically from different angles. In other words, unlike so much of the debate on this sensitive topic, the thinking was not all black and white (i.e. the Legalizing marijuana would be tragedy school of thinking versus the Theres nothing wrong with pot and people should be able to smoke it if they want school of thought). Saying that something is all good or all bad is only a way of giving ammunition to those who feel differently because the truth is that almost every idea is going to have its benefits and disadvantages. It strikes me that a more productive approach to this issue is to look at the possible affects of legalization and make our decisions accordingly rather than planting our feet on one side of the fence and criticizing all those who feel differently. NPR’s program may not cause anyone out there to change their minds but it provides a unique perspective on the subject which I believe is valuable.

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