Marijuana Re-Criminalization Advocates Make a Weak Case
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Some readers may disagree, but to visit Amsterdam is to be struck by its seediness. The view here is that the latter is driven by the legality of marijuana possession and usage. Except that what this calls for is broad legalization, not the exercise of more governmental force. If politicians and do-gooders would just let people be, they would be less likely to gather in the few places where they’re allowed to just be.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat plainly disagrees with the legalization argument. That he does, and since he’s wise, his recent column suggesting legalization has failed was read with great interest. Surely he would make some great points? Much to my surprise, he didn't. Worse, his arguments often weren’t recognizable as ones made by legalization proponents, and if they were recognizable, they weren’t original or compelling.

Douthat refers to himself as a “square” on the matter of marijuana. In my case, I have no use for it and never really have despite it having always been readily available. Why smoke or eat something that is harmful to short-term memory, can cause lethargy (or are marijuana smokers lethargic?), and that instigates massive amounts of calorie consumption? It’s just not necessary, at least to me. No law needed. Really, why the laws? If they legalize heroin tomorrow, will you buy it?

Douthat’s source for the alleged failure of legalization was the Manhattan Institute’s Charles Fain Lehman. Lehman claims that legalization hasn’t cleared prisons of non-violent offenders simply because they represent a small share of those incarcerated. Ok, but the idea about clearing prisons was more about legalizing choices well beyond marijuana as is. If “drug” use is a market signal, and it is, why stop at marijuana? More on this in a bit, but legalizing market activity would presumably bring the production of what’s desired and distribution of same out of the shadows. If so, let’s see about prison populations after that in total, not just marijuana.

Lehman contends there’s also no evidence that legalization reduces “racially discriminatory patterns of policing and arrests.” See above for starters, but from there what does this have to do with just letting people live as they want to? Alcohol can be pretty damaging if there’s any truth in anecdote, yet it’s legal. Why do politicians get to choose how we allegedly harm ourselves?

Douthat (in each instance referencing Lehman) then points to expressed hope pre-legalization that “legal pot might substitute for opioid use.” Seriously, who thought this? If we ignore that “opioids” only became a thing in fairly modern times, and after Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin was puzzlingly demonized out of the market, marijuana and “drug” legalization proponents have been making their cases for decades and decades. After which, the argument doesn’t make sense as is. Part of what’s driven marijuana’s acceptance was its ubiquity when it wasn’t legal. Douthat and Lehman’s reasoning implies that marijuana was formerly difficult to attain. Please.  

Douthat cites marijuana’s “therapeutic benefits” that “justify its availability,” but to whom? To Douthat? To Lehman? What happened to choice? I don’t bungee-jump or ride motorcycles, but love French fries. Some say I risk heart attack. Where would Douthat draw the line on rules?

Douthat points to downsides like schizophrenia, personal degradation, and lost attention. Sure, plus I could tell Douthat a few bar stories over the years, including one involving a celebrity who couldn’t stand up. What’s his point? Let’s read his point as a non sequitur. Choices have consequences, and if they’re bad choices we can change what we do. No force needed.

Douthat believes legalization in its “ideal form” would include “effective regulation and taxation.” This is a popular argument, and it’s also a lame one. Why is government always the victor no matter what? Here the taxation of a personal choice would give Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell more to spend, along with Gavin Newsom and Greg Abbott. No thanks. Keep it illegal. No one is made better off when government has more money. As for regulation of what’s legal, no need. Businesses want repeat business. Talk about regulation.

Along the lines of the above, Douthat acknowledges that “the more you tax and regulate legal pot sales, the more you run the risk of having users just switch to the black market.” You think?

Douthat then points out that “because of all the years of Prohibition, a major and supple illegal marketplace already exists.” This was where Douthat rebutted himself. As stated earlier, marijuana is already ubiquitous. So are most “drugs.”

The frequently compelling columnist concludes that the “squares” will “get the hearing they deserve” once the errors of legalization are made apparent. Maybe, but not if Lehman and Douthat are the ones listing the errors.

John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets, Vice President at FreedomWorks, a senior fellow at the Market Institute, and a senior economic adviser to Applied Finance Advisors ( His latest book is The Money Confusion: How Illiteracy About Currencies and Inflation Sets the Stage For the Crypto Revolution.

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