Question 4

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Legalize marijuana?

On November 8, the people of Massachusetts answered a very crucial question by the ballot. It was not a question that occupied nearly as much airtime as the election; nevertheless, it concerns almost every one of us who reside in this state for the foreseeable future. This question, listed as ‘4’ on the ballot, if answered ‘yes’ would “…permit the possession, use, distribution, and cultivation of marijuana in limited amounts by persons age 21 and older and would remove criminal penalties for such activities.”

This newspaper has always considered it its prerogative to give a voice to views not duly articulated in conventional media. While the case for legalization of marijuana may not be as widely distrusted as it once was, we think it might still be long before it comes to be appreciated for what it really is: compelling. This article attempts to explain why we think so.

There are up to three arguments advanced by skeptics of legalization that may be worth considering: one (1), that the use of marijuana, at least for recreational purposes, is immoral; two (2), that marijuana legalization would in some way restrict its use; and three (3), that reduced use would be desirable for society. We begin by evaluating the validity of each of these claims, and consider whether they are supported by empirical evidence.

Firstly, it fair to assert that any reflexive presumption against the moral underpinnings of marijuana-consumption is both ignorant and misguided. Oftentimes this claim is advanced as a result of negative experiences people may have had with marijuana, which may be affected as much by their relations with people who admit to using it, as by their own biases. Neither is a particularly relevant basis for deciding policy, and much less for categorizing something to be immoral. The immorality of prohibition, on the other hand, is far more obvious. It is frequently pointed out that black Americans are arrested in much higher numbers than whites for possession of marijuana, and that the implications of the War on Drugs have been very different across racial groups in the US. Crucially, there is little or no evidence to assert that there exist any substantial differences in usage-patterns across these groups, pointing manifestly to the racial biases that prohibition seems to perpetuate.

Secondly, the effects of prohibition on usage-patterns of marijuana are often overestimated. Colorado, which legalized marijuana for recreational use in 2012, saw no increase in rates of use among teens, and a 5–6 percentage point increase among those of age 18 and above. It is important to note that even if the marginal increase in consumption were to be considered undesirable in and of itself, its effect is largely displaced by the fact that the supply of legal marijuana is more reliable; one would expect to trust buying packaged marijuana from a convenience store far more than from third-party underground dealers. The competition that legalization allows for in the market can further improve the quality of marijuana being transacted, and can ensure that not only does it become cheaper to procure, but also safer to consume.

Finally, even the claim that current trends in consumption may change as a result of increased legalization, and may hence lead to undesirable outcomes for society, is unconvincing. Perhaps it is conceivable that the marginal increases in usage in states that have legalized marijuana reflect social acceptability and attitudes, which are unlikely to undergo changes quite as quickly as the law. But even if one were to concede the point, there is little evidence to suggest that restricted use is itself desirable for society. Aside from the obvious limits prohibition places on individual liberties, by allowing the government to decide what one can or cannot consume—a dangerously slippery slope, mind you—it ignores valuable scientific research.

A study published by the Lancet that used 16 criteria to measure the harm caused by various substances—including damage to health, social, and economic costs—revealed that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol and tobacco, both of which are perfectly acceptable to consume in most parts of the world, and most specifically across all states in the US. Several other researchers have reached the same conclusion, many of whom even point to marijuana’s benefits as a mild, and less dependent sedative than most available in the market. There is no better case for establishing the therapeutic effects of marijuana than its usage for treatment of a variety of ailments, including nausea during chemotherapy and chronic muscle pains.

It might be a while before marijuana is consumed with the same freedom in society as alcohol. Regardless of which way future referenda on similar questions go, however, it is important to question the purpose of prohibition. In terms of the social and economic costs it imposes on our society, it doesn’t seem to be doing us any good. In terms of its possible impact on public health, there appears little reason to worry. If anything, the case for legalization of marijuana isn’t only compelling, but also a moral one.

The Indy News Editorial Board ([email protected]) looks to the future for changes in the state’s policies regarding marijuana.