• EconAfterHours

The High Road

Updated: Mar 11, 2020

by Prathishta Mamgain

The US has seen a profound cultural shift on legalizing recreational and medical use of marijuana. The issue has garnered support from a major chunk of the American public- and not just ordinary (otherwise law abiding) citizens or party animals but from Nobel laureate and celebrated economist Milton Friedman too. Friedman and more than 500 noted economists endorsed a June 2005 paper by Dr. Jeffrey Miron, visiting professor of economics at Harvard University –‘The Budgetary Implications of Marijuana Prohibition’ (Miron 2005). The paper concludes that replacing marijuana prohibition with a system of legal regulation would save approximately $7.7 billion in government expenditures on prohibition enforcement and revenue from taxation of marijuana sales would range from $2.4 billion per year if marijuana were taxed like ordinary consumer goods to $6.2 billion if it were taxed like alcohol or tobacco.

So while taxation will raise much needed revenue for the govt to spend on the public, it will also reduce the burden on the prison system and allow law enforcement agencies to focus on ‘other more dangerous vices’. An editorial in the New York Times has also argued that ‘the social costs of marijuana laws are vast and the result is racist, falling disproportionately on young black men, ruining their lives and creating new generations of career criminals’ (The Editorial Board 2014).

However, legalizing marijuana keeping these arguments in mind also undoubtedly creates a slippery slope for legalizing more dangerous drugs. Creating a legal marijuana industry would simply be the next Big Tobacco or Alcohol, with legalization bringing higher rates of addiction (to many substances and not just weed) and mental health problems.

The main problem with marijuana is the popular perception among young and adults alike that it is not addictive and relatively harmless compared to alcohol or other substances which reinforces its position as a gateway to harder drugs and is responsible for its widespread use. According to the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), marijuana accounted for 4.5 million of the estimated 7.1 million Americans who were addicted to, or abusing illicit drugs. Recent studies show that fewer adolescents believe that regular marijuana use is harmful to their health (MH, et al. 2012). In fact, many supporters view marijuana to be a lesser evil compared to alcohol. Surprisingly, while trying to understand this dubious reasoning, I came across two very interesting studies.

Economists D. Mark Anderson and Daniel Rees found that “studies based on clearly defined natural experiments generally support the hypothesis that marijuana and alcohol are substitutes.” Increasing the drinking age seems to result in more marijuana consumption, for instance, and pot smoking drops off sharply at age 21, “suggesting that young adults treat alcohol and marijuana as substitutes” (Anderson and Rees 2013). That conclusion is consistent with earlier research in which Anderson and Rees found that enacting medical marijuana laws is associated with a 13 percent drop in traffic fatalities (Anderson, Hansen and Rees 2012). That effect could be due to the fact that marijuana impairs driving ability much less dramatically than alcohol does, although the fact that alcohol is more likely to be consumed outside the home (resulting in more driving under its influence) may play a role as well.

However, the question that arises is- is it still okay to work or be around children when high? Marijuana has been proven to impair motor coordination and reaction time, being the second most prevalent drug (after alcohol) implicated in automobile accidents (Robert L. DuPont 2011). Research has shown that persistent and excessive marijuana use is associated with neuropsychological decline and more cognitive problems. Impairment is worst when marijuana use begins in adolescence, with more persistent use associated with greater decline. Heavy marijuana use during adolescence may lead to drug and property crime and criminal justice system interactions. Weed is not as harmless as people believe, so what makes it a better alternative than alcohol? Does its ‘safe’ image make it more dangerous? And more importantly, will legalization make weed socially more acceptable?

Until 1985, recreational use of marijuana was the norm in India. All cannabis derivatives were legally sold in this country. Owing to US pressure, marijuana was banned under the Narcotic Drugs & Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act 1985. And while some may argue that we have a cultural history of marijuana use, the fact remains that we also have a host of problems to deal with- an overworked police force, slow criminal justice system, lack of de-addiction and rehabilitation centres are some of the few. We need more weapons in our arsenal before we can even think of a debate on this issue.

Legalizing marijuana for recreational use is obviously a tightrope to walk on. Medical marijuana, for patients suffering from host of diseases such as AIDS, cancer, depression, Alzheimer’s, may not be a bad idea after all. Undoubtedly, it requires a lot of debate and more research before we can be sure that the social costs do not outweigh profits, and lives are put before dollars.


  1. Board, The editorial. “Repeal Prohibition, Again.” The New York Times. July 27, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/07/27/opinion/sunday/high-time-marijuana-legalization.html?_r=0.

  2. Mark Anderson, Benjamin Hansen,Daniel I. Rees. “Medical Marijuana Laws, Traffic Fatalities, and Alcohol Consumption.” uoregon.edu. October 2012. http://pages.uoregon.edu/bchansen/MML_Alcohol_Consumption.pdf.

  3. Mark Anderson, Daniel I. Rees. “The Legalization of Recreational Marijuana: How Likely Is the Worst-Case Scenario?” Wiley Online Library. October 22, 2013. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/pam.21727/abstract.

  4. Meier MH, Caspi A, Ambler A, Harrington H, Houts R, Keefe RS, McDonald K, Ward A, Poulton R, Moffitt TE. “Persistent cannabis users show neuropsychological decline from childhood to midlife.” NCBI. October 2, 2012. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=22927402.

  5. Miron, Jeffrey A. “The Budgetary Implications of Marijuana Prohibition .” prohibitioncosts. June 2005. http://www.prohibitioncosts.org/mironreport/.

  6. Robert L. DuPont, M.D. “Drugged Driving Research: A White Paper .” whitehouse.gov. March 31, 2011. http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/ondcp/issues-content/drugged-driving/nida_dd_paper.pdf.

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