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September 07, 2004

Why Marijuana Should Be Illegal

Steve Sailer writes about the true reason why marijuana should be illegal:

In Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, Samuel L. Jackson comes home to find Bridget Fonda lying on the couch, smoking dope, and giggling at the TV. Disgusted, he tells her that marijuana will rob her of her ambitions.

"Not if your ambition is to get high and watch TV," she replies.

The problem with marijuana is not that it's some wild and crazy thing, but that it's middle-age-in-a-bong. Smoking dope saps the energy from youth, turning them into sedentary couch potatoes.

...

The parents of America already have a hard enough time getting their teenagers -- and, increasingly, their adult children who have come back home to live -- off the TV room floor when they are perfectly straight. Parents understand that changing laws to make marijuana more readily available -- and, let's not kid ourselves, that's what these "reforms" would do -- would create an even more inert and obese generation of young people.

There are questions of enforcement and practical compromise, but the basic question we need to ask is this: 1. Which America is better, one in which nobody smokes marijuana, or one in which fifty million people smoke marijuana? Or, let me pose it a bit differently, to make it easier for you to think about: 2. Which country would you rather live in, one in which nobody smokes marijuana, or one in which fifty million people smoke marijuana?

The answer is not obvious.

If you like to smoke marijuana, you might prefer the Marijuana America-- though you might not, since about fifty million other people will also be smoking it. (I would like a country in which I can drive without the bother of a license, but not one in which other people are also exempt from licensing.)

The economist's way of thinking is useful in this connection, though economists do not use it to the full. At the simplest level, an economist would say that Marijuana America is best, because more people are able to satisfy their desires. We do not ask whether someone is better off eating chocolate ice cream or vanilla. Rather, we give them the freedom to choose, and believe that they will choose what makes them happiest. Since happiness is good, we have thereby achieved a good outcome. I personally may prefer chocolate to vanilla, but I have no reason to force my choice on everyone else. Thus, if someone wants to spend his money on Marijuana instead of Mozart, we should let him.

Note, however, that this economic argument only addresses Question 1, not Question 2. The Economist might answer Question 2 by saying he is indifferent, personally, between Marijuana America and Mozart America. In that case, his answer has no implications for Question 1. But what if the Economist says he prefers not to have other people smoking marijuana? That *does* have implications for Question 1, because we now have an "externality", a "spillover". The very fact that some people object to other people smoking marijuana is a sign that they get unhappiness from people smoking it, so we can no longer apply so simply the argument that freely chosen marijuana use increases happiness. Smith's dopesmoking makes him happier, but it makes Jones unhappier, and we have to do some calculations to figure out the overall effect.

Or, it could be that the externality goes the opposite way: that you actually *prefer* other people to smoke marijuana. It might be, for example, that without marijuana, many people would substitute to committing crimes, not quite the example Sailer is thinking of when he urges kids to get off their couches, but an example nonetheless. Crime takes energy and initiative. The question is hard to answer, though, because in fact many people committing crimes purposely smoke marijuana or drink alcoholic beverages before they do it, to psych themselves up. So maybe marijuana use increases crime, rather than reducing it.

So if the Economist remembers the concept of Externalities, he won't be quite so quick to be libertarian. But there is a second economic concept that is even more fundamental: Poor Information. The basic economic argument is that people choose what makes them happier. That's perfectly reasonable when it comes to picking vanilla instead of chocolate ice cream. But should we accept without question that people who choose to smoke marijuana have chosen the best life for themselves?

I think not. We know that people make wrong choices all the time. They buy defective used cars, stock in phony companies, quack medicines, and crazy government policies. They choose to drive their cars too fast on slick roads to eat too much dessert, and to go to boring movies. Afterwards, once they've learned, people regret all these choices. They wish they hadn't made them, and presumably wish they hadn't been given the option to make the mistake. (Yes, I know some people say they wouldn't have done anything differently in their past lives, but I don't believe them. Do you really think they wouldn't rather have bought Microsoft stock in 1985 than whatever investment they did make?)

Many of these mistakes are predictable by other people at the time. So we regulate them. We make it illegal to make false claims about cars being sold and to sell phony stock, and to sell certain kinds of quack medicine. We do allow other quack medicines, and we do allow crazy government policies, but that is because we are worried about overregulation and slippery slopes, a separate consideration.

What about marijuana? Do we think that maybe the best use of a person's time is indeed to smoke dope? If not, then we should ban it. I don't think many old people would say, " One thing I regret in life is not spending enough time and money smoking dope." In fact, I would expect the opposite ( though a poll would be useful.

Let's add yet another variant to our questions: 3. If you had a thirty-year-old son who wanted to smoke marijuana daily, would you be pleased if he were given the legal right to do so?

I think most people would not want their son to smoke dope every day, even if he said it made him happier. And it's not the direct externality-- that he would telephone me less often or something like that. Rather, we want the best for our children, and we don't think smoking marijuana is the best use of their time. But if this is true for our children, why shouldn't it be true for people in general? It seems rather selfish to say that we don't want our own children to damage their lives but we don't care a bit about what anybody else does, and we certainly don't want to spend any of our tax money protecting them from their own actions.

An objection to this line of argument is that it proves too much. Shouldn't we also ban beer? Do any old men say, " One thing I regret in life is not spending enough time drinking beer." Well, yes. I think lots of people wish they had spent more time having fun and less time working. But what the beer-drinking old men would regret is not solitary drinking, but not spending time drinking beer with friends. Marijuana is often smoked in groups too, but it is an introverting intoxicant, not an extraverting one. From what I can tell of its use when legal (see this general history and this good history of use in India, Egypt, and Greece), it was purely an intoxicant or a medicine, not a way to promote good fellowship.

Well, beer has its uses, but how about eliminating mistaken choices of junk music, books, and movies? Should Britney Spears be banned? I am not averse to the idea in theory, but in practice it requires too many and repeated small policy decisions. We can't just ban junk music and appoint a commission, because we can't trust commissions. We could have a national debate and ban just Britney Spears after due deliberation, but what of the next junk musician? New bad music would keep arriving faster than we could debate it, and there's no simple rule we could put into law such as "No music in 4/4 time allowed." Such things as Marijuana and Alcohol are special enough and big enough that we *can* have national debates-- and did-- to decide whether to ban them, without fear that the next year would bring a new variety of the same evil.

And so we return to Question 1: Which America is better, one in which nobody smokes marijuana, or one in which fifty million people smoke marijuana? Please do answer it for yourself, before going on practical issues such as the cost of jailing dope dealers.

Posted by erasmuse at September 7, 2004 10:51 AM

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Comments

I think you are overlooking another externality to this issue. Do we want large numbers of people sent to prison for using or selling an intoxicant that merely makes people lethargic? How strongly should government act to suppress such a vice? The costs of the drug war seem to me to be far in excess of the benefits of suppressing such a mild intoxicant.

Posted by: John Purdy at September 8, 2004 12:04 PM

I think I said I was putting that aside for the moment. You are quite right that even if it would be good to ban marijuana if we could do it costlessly, it would be bad to do it if enforcement was too costly. That's a subject for another day...

Posted by: Eric Rasmusen at September 9, 2004 10:04 PM

Ah, so you did, right at the end there. That's what I get for not reading the last paragraph.
Still, it seems to me that considering your argument separate from the practical costs undermines the rest of your argument about such things as bad music - if there were no costs involved why not have highly complex and dynamic legislation based on continual evaluation of new music as perceived by over 40 voters...And then there's adultery, easily classified by your criteria, a cause of far more violence and suffering than marijuana but the cure is again far worse than the disease. If there was no cost?

I do have a 30 year-old "almost" son who smokes dope daily. I have never seen a problem that concerns me. And I would be fine with an America where 50 million people smoke dope. But the only viable argument focuses on the costs of suppressing vice. Defending vice as a positive thing has always been a losing proposition. certainly in this country.

Posted by: John Purdy at September 9, 2004 10:34 PM

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