One month ago from today, I wrote a blog entry about the economic implications of marijuana legalization. I came to the conclusion that from an economic standpoint, marijuana legalization is a no-brainer. I would now like to assess the remaining factors to see how non-economic factors play a role in answering the question of whether we should legalize marijuana.
From a libertarian standpoint, being able to be free to do what one wants as long as it doesn't infringe on other people's freedom is paramount. Since I consider myself a consequentialist libertarian/classical liberal, I view freedom to be an exceptionally weighty factor, not an absolute one, and as such, one would have to come up with a very detrimental factor that is causing all sorts of negative externalities to others before one can even begin to justify making marijuana illegal.
Health: "Marijuana is bad for you, and as such, we should ban it." Some even go to the point of claiming that marijuana is actually worse for you than smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol. We already have a good amount of government data showing that people still use marijuana, even in spite of its illegality, which means one cannot really counter-claim the fact that the CDC doesn't even have a category for marijuana-related deaths because these deaths are virtually non-existent. Contrast that with the near 40,000 lives per annum lost due to alcohol, or approximately one in five deaths in this country are caused by cigarette smoking. The Economist published an article a couple years ago illustrating how cannabis is less harmful to society and individuals than nicotine or alcohol, meaning that although there are some adverse health effects, it's not as bad as the licit alternatives.
Crime: There were economic impact factors (e.g., backlog of court systems, overcrowded prisons) that I covered in my last blog entry. Aside from those important reasons, I want to point out the reason why marijuana is a criminal issue: prohibition. For a drug that is less harmful than cigarettes, and certainly less so than alcohol, we have attached a lot of stigma to marijuana. I'm not denying that there aren't any adverse health effects with smoking marijuana because there are. As pointed out in the last paragraph, alcohol and cigarettes are harmful. Trans-fats or the high amounts of sugar found in soda can be considered "menaces to society." What happens with prohibition is in addition to the health affects of marijuana, you have thrown in the costs that come with more law enforcement and underground markets, the latter of which the government perpetuates by prohibiting marijuana. Not only do we turn people's lives upside-down, as well as those of their families, for a non-violent drug offense (can't emphasize that point enough), but once they serve their prison sentence, they are labeled as felons, and thus disenfranchised (e.g., cannot vote, rendered de facto unemployable) for weed possession. For those who do want to get treatment, it's difficult because they fear being jailed, which just leads them into a downward spiral. Just another example of what happens when the government intervenes with good intentions, but delivers bad results.
Conclusion: There is much more that I can cover, but I would like to conclude at this time. Other arguments, such as marijuana would cause unproductive members of society or additional family issues, my response is this: We already tolerate such consequences with cigarettes and even more so with alcohol, which are arguably worse than those of marijuana. Yet we learned our lessons from the Prohibition and re-legalized alcohol with the 21st Amendment, which led to the disappearance of alcohol from the underground market. Why do we tolerate substances like alcohol and cigarettes, even though we know they cause certain harms? Because we realize that in a free society, people will inevitably do things with which we don't agree. If an individual commits a crime under the influence of marijuana, then they would be prosecuted, just like people who commit crimes while under the influence of alcohol. Short of any spillover effects such as those instances, people should have the freedom to smoke marijuana because that is what "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" is about.
I'm sure the government likes to think that it's doing more good than harm on fighting the War on Drugs, but it's not. Federal drug laws ignore this reality, as well as ignoring the increased support for marijuana reform. I'm hoping that the states of Colorado, Oregon, and Washington pass their marijuana initiatives this November so that we can change the tide on the issue. We need a sensible drug policy that treats marijuana addiction as a health issue, not the use of marijuana as a criminal issue. Not only does it make fiscal sense, but it also makes for good common sense.