Launching 17 million “Rocky Mountain High” jokes, Colorado has become the first state to make the prudent choice of legalizing the consumption and sale of marijuana, thus dispensing with the charade of medical restrictions and recognizing the fact that, while some people smoke marijuana to counter the effects of chemotherapy, most people smoke marijuana to get high — and that is not the worst thing in the world.
Regardless of whether one accepts the individual-liberty case for legalizing marijuana, the consequentialist case is convincing. That is because the history of marijuana prohibition is a catalogue of unprofitable tradeoffs: billions in enforcement costs, and hundreds of thousands of arrests each year, in a fruitless attempt to control a mostly benign drug the use of which remains widespread despite our energetic attempts at prohibition. We make a lot of criminals while preventing very little crime, and do a great deal of harm in the course of trying to prevent an activity that presents little if any harm in and of itself.
Marijuana is a drug, as abusable as any intoxicant is, and its long-term use is in some people associated with undesirable effects. But its effects are relatively mild, and while nearly half of American adults have smoked marijuana, few develop habits, much less habits that are lifelong (in another context, we might write “chronic”). Compared to binge drinking or alcohol addiction, marijuana use is a minor public-health concern. All that being the case, the price of prohibition is relatively high, whether measured in police and penal expenses or in liberty lost. The popularity of marijuana may not be the most admirable social trend of our time, but it simply is not worth suppressing.
One of the worst consequences of marijuana use is the development of saucer-eyed arguments about the benefits of legalizing it. Colorado, and other states that may follow its example, should go into this with realistic expectations. If the Dutch example is any guide, then Colorado can probably expect to see higher rates of marijuana use and the use of other drugs, though not dramatically so. As with the case of Amsterdam, Colorado already is developing a marijuana-tourism industry — some hotels are considering offering designated marijuana-smoking rooms, even while smoking tobacco outdoors is banned in parts of Boulder — which brings problems of its own, among them opportunistic property crime and public intoxication. Colorado’s legal drug dealers inevitably will end up supplying black markets in neighboring prohibition states. Expected tax revenues from marijuana sales will amount to a mere three-tenths of 1 percent of the state’s budget.
The payoff is not in tax revenue gained but in losses avoided. A great many people will avoid being convicted of crimes for a relatively benign recreational indulgence — and those criminal convictions often have much more severe long-term consequences on pot-smokers’ lives than marijuana does. The business of policing covert marijuana dealers has been replaced with the relatively straightforward business of regulating them in the open. A large and fairly nasty criminal enterprise has lost its raison d’être, at least so far as the Colorado market is concerned.
Perhaps most important, the legalization of marijuana in Colorado — and the push for its legalization elsewhere — is a sign that Americans still recognize some limitations on the reach of the state and its stable of nannies-in-arms. The desire to discourage is all too easily transmuted into the desire to criminalize, just as the desire to encourage metastasizes into the desire to mandate. It is perhaps a little dispiriting that of all the abusive overreaches of government to choose from, it is weed that has the nation’s attention, but it is a victory nonetheless. Unfortunately, it is probably too much to hope that Colorado’s recognition of this individual liberty might inspire some popular reconsideration of other individual liberties, for instance that of a working man to decide for himself whether he wants to join a union, or for Catholic nuns to decide for themselves whether they want to purchase drugs that may work as abortifacients — higher liberties, if you will.