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A blog about economics in the South Caucasus.

Decriminalize Marijuana?

 

According to a recent study, smoking marijuana for many years leads to a severe loss of intelligence: compared with people who did not consume cannabis, the IQ’s of smokers were lower by 13-38 points (Meier et al.: “Persistent cannabis users show neuropsychological decline from childhood to midlife”, PNAS 109, 2012). Moreover, after a long time of consumption, cognitive abilities and memory do not recover when smoking marijuana is eventually given up. 

Recently, decriminalization of marijuana became a hotly discussed topic in Georgia. The opinions are strongly polarized, with peaceful protests for liberalization on the one side and strong moral objections and concerns about public health on the other. Member of Parliament Goga Khachidze drafted a law for the decriminalization of marijuana, which was sharply repudiated by Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili.

Consuming marijuana comes with more serious health risks than often hawked by legalization advocates. Clearly, a loss of intelligence of up to 38 points is not a trifle. Yet does it follow directly that smoking cannabis should be outlawed? While in the political arena, bombastic statements often dominate sober analysis, in this article I will look at the issue from philosophical and economic angles, trying to be as impartial as possible.


OWNERSHIP OF ONE’S OWN BODY

The question of cannabis legalization touches on a very fundamental issue: should people be allowed to harm themselves? The philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), one of the fathers of liberal thought, would have answered this question affirmatively. He derives the moral legitimacy of private property from the very assumption that people own their own bodies. Because they own their bodies, they own their labor, and thus they have legitimate claims on the product of their labor. As “ownership of one’s body” is a central notion in Locke’s thought, which can hardly be reconciled with the idea to “protect people from themselves”, libertarians around the world unanimously support the legalization of marijuana.

In reality, however, there is not one single society in the world which is fully in line with the principle that one is unrestricted owner of one’s own body. In addition, in most societies the rules regarding harming oneself are highly inconsistent: while people are typically allowed to drink alcohol, smoke tobacco, adopt unhealthy eating habits, and exercise dangerous hobbies, states usually try to prevent people from committing suicide, wasting their money in gambling, and consuming certain drugs.

Even if one does not agree with the idea of ownership of one’s body, these inconsistencies cause serious justification problems. Is it reasonable that in a country like Georgia smokers of marijuana may be jailed for many years while smoking of ordinary cigarettes is not even considered a misdemeanor?


IMPACT ON SOCIETY

The legal inconsistencies are even more striking in view of the fact that in many respects marijuana resembles much more tobacco than heavy drugs like heroin and cocaine, and some experts consider it even less dangerous than tobacco. For example, smoking marijuana is less addictive than smoking normal cigarettes (cf. Wes Boyd from the Harvard Medical School, who writes in Psychology Today: “The physiological effects of cannabis withdrawal are generally mild.”)

Moreover, marijuana can be cultivated in lofts and winter gardens or even in a plant pot on the window sill. This makes it cheap even if it is illegal, while the very combination of being highly addictive and highly priced is what makes hard drugs like heroin and cocaine so destructive for society. High prices trigger consumers of those drugs to engage in all kinds of illegal activities for funding their addictions (so-called “trigger offenses”), while crime associated with obtaining marijuana is rarely observed.

However, smoking cannabis may have negative externalities on others. According to the medical portal WebMD  the immediate effects of smoking marijuana are altered senses (e.g. seeing brighter colors), accelerated heart rate, more appetite, impaired body movement, and sometimes nasty symptoms like anxiety, paranoia, and “random thinking”. Therefore, people who smoke marijuana and drive cars pose serious threats for others. While this is also true for alcohol, it is not possible for the police to quickly find out whether a person has smoked marijuana, as the test can only be carried out in police stations. 

Long term effects of cannabis consumption include not just the standard issues also associated with tobacco smoking, like increased risk of cancer, fertility problems, and higher risk of heart attacks, but also mental disorders like schizophrenia and depression. This is an important difference between the two kinds of smoking: health problems resulting from tobacco smoking are not increasing health care expenditures, as smokers typically die rather quickly, but mental problems do cause additional costs. 

However, these costs could be covered by special taxes levied on marijuana consumption, as they exist, for example, in the Netherlands. Moreover, experts do not believe that these mental illnesses are genuinely caused by cannabis – rather, marijuana seems to trigger the outbreak of mental issues people already have. Unlike with most other drugs, including legal ones like alcohol, there has not been recorded one single death caused by an overdose of cannabis.


CRIMINALIZATION COSTS
  

Is it smart to send people to prison who did nothing else but smoke marijuana? In most countries of the world, including Georgia, prisons are “universities of crime”. The socialization among other inmates in prisons and the stigmatization that follows from imprisonment has turned many essentially harmless people into “bad eggs”.  What started with some minor offenses like smoking marijuana, perhaps part of teenage rebellions, ruined many persons’ future lives and careers. 

Another question is whether the ban really achieves its goal to reduce the number of consumers. A recent study from Australia, where marijuana is decriminalized only in some states but not in others, did not find statistically significant increases in the number of marijuana smokers as a result of decriminalization (Williams and Bretteville-Jensen: "Does liberalizing cannabis laws increase cannabis use?", Journal of Health Economics 36, 2014). However, it seems that in states with liberal laws the distribution of consumers is shifted towards younger people, which is clearly problematic. 

One largely refuted argument against decriminalization is the so called “gateway theory”. It states that smoking marijuana is just a first step of an “addiction career” and will later lead to the consumption of harder drugs. Yet as one of many reports state clearly: “There is no evidence that marijuana serves as a stepping stone on the basis of its particular drug effect.” (Joy et al.: “Marijuana and Medicine – Assessing the Science Base”, National Academy Press, Washington 1999). 

One should also take into account that cannabis could be a source of tax income for the government. The Netherlands, where for many decades marijuana consumption is permitted in highly controlled cafes with special licenses (so-called “Coffee Shops”), managed to attract huge numbers of tourists from other European countries who came for smoking marijuana in Holland (as many other European countries have liberalized their policies, this kind of tourism has decreased). Georgia, which is happy to offer gambling to Turks, Azeris, and whoever else is not allowed to have casinos in their home country, might attract (mostly young) tourists from countries where cannabis consumption is illegal. The money paid for purchasing marijuana, currently pocketed by dealers, could be a source of income for the government.


BACK TO PROPORTION!

The global trend in the last years is to decriminalize the consumption of cannabis. There are still countries where consumption, possession, and production are illegal, like Georgia, France, and Greece. In many others, however, consumption is now de jure or de facto decriminalized, like in the Netherlands, Spain, some states of the US, and Australia. Typically, production and trade is still illegal, but there are even a few countries where marijuana it is totally legalized, like Uruguay and, allegedly, North Korea. In Georgia, the consumption, possession, production, and sale is illegal. Repeated consumption and possession of certain amounts can lead to imprisonment of up to 14 years!

While the Georgian society may not be ready yet for a full legalization, in light of the enormous societal cost of imprisoning people, it should be seriously considered to make the legal consequences less severe. In the end, a rational government should recognize that marijuana consumption, even with strict criteria applied, is not more than a minor offense.

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Tuesday, 18 June 2019

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