The Great Pot Experiment

It is now legal to buy and sell cannabis in Colorado. The gradual legalization of pot that began with the medical marijuana movement has moved into its next stage. The goal has always been legalization, and now that the drug has gained widespread, though not universal, acceptance, it is good that states like Colorado and soon Washington are acting as laboratories, showing the rest of the country how legalization works.

Talking heads have been cautious on the subject of legalization, leaning towards keeping current laws in place. Despite overwhelming evidence that prohibition, because of the harm done to individuals and communities by draconian drug laws, is increasingly untenable, the status quo seems to be preferable for people who are distant from the realities of the drug.

In the Washington Post, Ruth Marcus writes, “Please do not argue that Colorado’s law, like those proposed elsewhere, bans sales to those under 21. Ha! I have teenage children. The laws against underage drinking represent more challenge to overcome than barrier to access.”

What she fails to note is that the barriers to teens buying marijuana are even easier to overcome. When I was in high school, I smoked pot and drank alcohol. But, because sales of alcohol were regulated, it was much harder for me to find. I had to find someone with an older brother or a cousin, or some shady guy I worked with at the car wash, that was willing to buy alcohol for us. What there was not, were any alcohol dealers. But there were, and are, a lot of drug dealers. I couldn’t buy a fifth of vodka in the lunch line at school, but I regularly purchased drugs from other students. In denying legal access to marijuana for all people, a robust black market was created that had the effect of promoting sales wherever there was a market. In my case, that was 3rd period English. Any thought that legalization and regulation will result in endemic use among teens ignores the fact that regulation will damage the black market more than enable it.

In the New York Times, David Brooks relates his own past marijuana use, stating that he, like so many other people, aged out of the drug. This is a common theme among marijuana users. It is particularly a drug of youth. Most users do drift away as they age. How this natural progression would be upended by legalization he does not effectively say, but his column, like Ruth Marcus’s, confuses legalization with advocating use.

Colorado and Washington, in legalizing marijuana, are doing no such thing.

As John Hudak of the Brookings Institution points out, legalization “… is a serious issue that deals with public health, regulation, taxation and budgeting. [Advocacy] groups have done well to frame the issue not as a dorm-room debate but as a public policy problem.” The states, and the people that conscientiously push for the reform of marijuana laws, are not doing so because they want a society stoned out of its gourd. They are doing so because prohibition laws do not work. How people choose to behave with legal marijuana is up to them. All that states can do, and should do, is continue to educate people about the dangers of all drugs, including marijuana.

The fact is, no one knows how this experiment in legalization will turn out. It’s safe to assume that in the early going, there will be a fair amount of bingeing going on, because we’re people, and people are stupid. But once the novelty wears off, we will have a true picture of the costs, consequences, and real effects of the new laws in Colorado and Washington.