The hippies have grown old. Those in their carefree 20s during the 1960s are now past retirement age and, throughout their lifetimes, have brought a demographic shift in marijuana use. A new United States government report reveals that the number of 55-59 year olds who use cannabis has tripled since 2002, suggesting an upsurge in families with stoned grandparents at the head. Given the increased popularity of marijuana amongst an age group associated with sobriety, it seems pertinent to re-examine the substance’s illegal status. Marijuana is undeniably a drug with negative side effects, just like any other. However, relative to the crime and harm caused by its illegal market, the benefits of decriminalizing the drug far outweigh the cost.
Marijuana’s harmful heath effects are not the falsified tales of scaremongers. In the short term, the drug causes drowsiness and memory problems, and, in high doses, (usually when eaten) can lead to impaired memory and hallucinations. A user has four times the usual risk of a heart attack in the first hour after smoking, and, in the long run, marijuana causes the same respiratory problems as tobacco and makes you three times more likely to develop neck and lung cancer. However, it has yet to be confidently shown that these effects are worse than those of alcohol and tobacco, and indeed there is evidence that marijuana is less addictive than both.
Conversely, the cost and crime caused by the criminalisation of cannabis is definite and serious. Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard economics professor, estimates that approximately 13.7 billion dollars of savings per year would result from the legalization of marijuana. In the past five years, there were around 850,000 marijuana-related arrests per year (around 750,000 of which were merely for possession): evidence that prohibition costs police time as well as money. Meanwhile, Miron estimates that the government would generate around 6.4 billion dollars per year from tax revenue on the drug. In other words, the legalisation of marijuana would earn the U.S. government 20 billion dollars per year.
While the US government misses out on these funds, drug dealers pocket even more due to the dangerous nature of production—an estimated 35.8 billion dollars per year. Drug dealers tend to sell more than one type of substance, and so profits from marijuana sales are used to fund the market for more dangerous drugs. Thus the net worth of the market gives vast amounts of power and money to criminal dealers. Furthermore, those who buy marijuana illegally are introduced into the criminal world and thus granted a gateway into more serious drugs and felonious behaviour. On Harvard’s own campus, the most serious problems arise not from substance abuse, but violent crimes based on drug dealership, such as last year’s Kirkland shooting.
In addition to being expensive and encouraging further illegal behavior, the prohibition on cannabis has been largely ineffective. Marijuana use has increased slightly over the past few years amongst adolescents; indeed, e-TOKE (Harvard’s online marijuana educate program) reports that ten per cent of Harvard students use the substance. It has also been shown that some of the highest marijuana-use figures exist in countries with harsh laws, such as U.S. and Britain. Some ascribe this to cultural differences; however, although Sweden and Norway are culturally fairly similar, Sweden has far harsher drug laws while they both have the same level of addiction rates. Thus there is little evidence to suggest that criminalisation is effective in reducing drug-use.
A concern is occasionally voiced that if cannabis were legalized, more would use the drug and would, in turn, be tempted to try more dangerous drugs. Although it seems realistic to assume that marijuana usage will increase as it becomes more safe and accessible, it may not necessarily be the case. The decriminalisation of marijuana in Amsterdam did not lead to increased drug use, and it can be argued that the absence of a risk factor will deter some from pursuing the drug, and certainly from reckless abuse. Indeed, the popularity of cannabis amongst older generations could completely eradicate any rebellion factor and ensure that marijuana would mainly be used in the same controlled environment as alcohol and tobacco. As for the concern that marijuana use is dangerous because it encourages users to try worse drugs, evidence shows that tobacco is a larger indicator of a tendency to harder drugs than marijuana. There is thus no reason to suggest that once classed alongside tobacco, those who tried cannabis would be greatly inclined to try more dangerous drugs.
The ill effects of marijuana use are real but limited. The economic cost of criminalising the substance, together with its implicit encouragement and funding of further illegal activity, makes its unlawful status seem senseless. Should cannabis be legalized, those who choose to use the substance would be likely to do so in a far more responsible manner, while the money saved would be a much-needed boost to the state. To decriminalize marijuana would be a controversial move, and the presence of concerned-parent lobby groups means that such a policy is unlikely to pass any time soon. However, a balanced examination of the costs and benefits of prohibition reveals that the policy is irrational. The government should learn from the hippie mantra of freedom, and abolish restrictions on marijuana.
Olivia M. Goldhill ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a philosophy concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.