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March 28, 2012 1:00 PM Honest and Dishonest Arguments for Marijuana Legalization

By Keith Humphreys

Mike Riggs of Reason magazine supports marijuana legalization but has the guts to point out that three common arguments for legalization are fallacious. He is getting blowback from those activists who consider any dissent from the standard talking points to be gross disloyalty as well as from those who simply get angry at anyone who demonstrates that life can be complex. Agree with him or not, the man’s got moxie.

As long as we are on the topic, another lame, prevalent argument for legalization is that marijuana never harms anyone, and the only reason anyone ever seeks treatment for marijuana addiction is that they are pressured to do so by evil drug warriors. If marijuana use were not subject to criminal penalties, the argument runs, no one would seek treatment because no one really needs it.

If this were true, in the Netherlands, where personal consumption and use of cannabis are decriminalized, no one would seek treatment for marijuana addiction. But as Professor Rob MacCoun (a first rate drug policy researcher and a raging moderate in policy terms) has shown, there are over 4,000 cannabis treatment admissions annually in the Netherlands. And the per capita rate of treatment admission among cannabis users is higher in the Netherlands than in all the other European countries for which data are available (From lowest to highest rate of admission, the countries are Finland, Italy, France, Portugal, Sweden, United Kingdom. Germany and Denmark).

Such a finding is unremarkable for anyone with knowledge of pharmacology: Cannabis is a psychoactive drug to which some people become addicted. This causes them problems and therefore they seek health care. But for a disappointing number of marijuana legalization activists, truths that don’t support their world view should be discarded out of hand, and those who speak such truths should be attacked in a manner that would make Rush Limbaugh blush. Hence they continue to say that no one ever voluntarily seeks marijuana addiction treatment because no one is ever harmed by marijuana use, easily available data to the contrary notwithstanding.

However, Riggs is not the only prominent legalization supporter who has integrity. Another is Allen St. Pierre of NORML. I was on a radio show with St. Pierre some time ago and he said that marijuana legalization would not stop the violence in Mexico, would cause a dramatic drop in the drug’s price, would increase substance use by the young and other vulnerable populations, would produce a tobacco industry-like corporation that would be hard to regulate…but he was for it anyway because he thought that those costs would be more than offset by the benefits of preserving the ideals expressed in the Constitution. Although I didn’t agree with him, I admired him for not promising a free lunch, and for making clear how his values shaped his support of legalization. I respect people who will not lie to advance their political views and therefore I respect Mr. St. Pierre.

May the intellectual integrity of St. Pierre and Riggs infect others in the legalization movement. The public debate would be much better for it.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
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Comments

  • Crissa on March 29, 2012 1:38 PM:

    Actually, that people seek it higher in the Netherlands still doesn't mean much. People can get addicted to anything, and your quoted rate is lower than 'addiction to the internet', which is more a social disorder than actual addictive behavior. Second, just because they're in the Netherlands doesn't remove the social stigma against drugs and drug use; they're exposed to the same anti-drug campaigns and messages in the media, and have the same religions and social pressures because we share much media and religion across the Western world. Lastly, if Netherlands doesn't have use much higher than other nations - and some studies indicate they don't really - why would their number seeking treatment be significantly higher?

    So that doesn't mean the argument for it being harmless is complete bunk, just that everything has some level of harm, and you need to compare it to other things we accept as being harmless.