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Marijuana “Addiction” and Legalization: Policy Questions

Beneath the somewhat bogus headline "If Marijuana Is Legal, Will Addiction Rise?" a panel of experts at the New York Times offers a surprisingly sane discussion on the potential effects of decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana. Note that all these experts use the term "dependence," with its psychological connotations, rather than "addiction," with its physiological ones, and all five seem to support, at a minimum, decriminalization.

Tellingly, several of these experts also point to the lack of stable information about marijuana and marijuana policy. It’s hard to predict the effects of legalization because few countries have that experience, and none are really like the US. If the Dutch experience offers a guide, it is a very rough one.

Without clear historical models, are we left simply with common sense? I thought that a gentleman in the panel from Australia spoke to the potential outcomes and problems of legalization quite effectively:

If by legalization we mean making it legal to use, grow and sell marijuana then our task becomes more speculative because no modern country has adopted this policy. It seems common sense that legalizing marijuana use and sales would lead to more people using it regularly and this would probably mean more marijuana dependence.

Nonetheless it is difficult to say how much use may increase because there are options for reducing use under a legal market that are not now available. For example, we could tax marijuana to set the price at a level that discourages casual use, regulate its THC content, restrict sales to minors, include a health warning on packs and advise users on ways to reduce dependence risks (e.g. by using less than weekly). These possibilities make it difficult to predict the effect that a legal market would have on rates of marijuana dependence.

Marijuana dependence should be taken into account in considering whether we should legalize marijuana in any of these ways. But this concern also needs to be weighed against the costs of current policy, that is, the creation of perverse incentives to produce more potent marijuana, the widespread disregard of legal prohibition on marijuana use that could contribute to a decline in respect for law and policing; the unregulated access of minors to marijuana; and the social and economic costs of a large marijuana black market.

What do you think? 

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Alex Thurston

Alex Thurston