Will Legalizing Pot Result in More or Less Drinking?

Among the eight "enforcement priorities" that the Justice Department expects states to address in exchange for prosecutorial restraint vis-á-vis newly legal pot businesses is "preventing drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use." Last week I noted an article in which two economists, D. Mark Anderson of Montana State University and Daniel Rees of the University of Colorado, predicted that, on balance, the "public health consequences" of marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington will be positive, mainly because more pot smoking will be accompanied by less drinking. The same issue of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management includes a less sanguine take on the question by Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, co-director of the RAND Corporation's Drug Policy Research Center, and University of South Carolina criminologist Eric Sevigny. Pacula and Sevigny warn that research in this area is complicated by the fact that legal restrictions on cannabis in states with medical marijuana laws vary across states and over time within the same state:

We find that states restricting broad access to medical marijuana by requiring annual registration of patients have lower marijuana prevalence rates among youth and adult[s] and lower admissions to treatment than states without such requirements. However, states allowing home cultivation and legal dispensaries are both positively associated with recreational use and, in particular, heavy use.

Pacula and Sevigny also note that states with legally protected dispensaries tend to see statistically significant drops in price and increases in potency—which strike me as benefits of legalization but look like costs to analysts who worry that cheaper, stronger pot will magnify the hazards associated with marijuana consumption. 

On the question of whether marijuana and alcohol are substitutes or complements, Anderson and Rees think the former is more likely, while Pacula and Sevigny say the evidence "remains mixed." Although they acknowledge that the hazards associated with marijuana itself pale beside the cost of treating its production, sale, and use as crimes, Pacula and Sevigny worry that the cost of increased alcohol consumption could swamp the benefits of legalization if more pot smoking is accompanied by more drinking:

Although there are small recognized health costs associated with using marijuana and treating dependence, these costs are dwarfed in comparison to the criminal justice savings associated with legalizing and regulating the substance. Even if consumption were assumed to rise by 100 percent, the savings of liberalizing policies would dwarf the known health costs associated with using marijuana. However, all potential savings associated with marijuana legalization could be entirely erased, and tremendous losses incurred, if alcohol and marijuana turn out to be economic complements, particularly for young adults.

Notably, both Colorado and Washington plan to tax marijuana at a much higher rate than alcohol, which is just the opposite of what Anderson, Rees, Pacula, and Sevigny presumably would recommend. Anderson and Rees note the disparity (citations omitted):

The current excise tax on liquor sold in Colorado is 60.26 cents/l, which represents roughly 3 percent of the retail price of Jim Beam Whiskey purchased by the bottle. In comparison, Colorado is set to impose a 15 percent excise tax and a 10 percent special sales tax on marijuana sales. Washington is considering taxing producers, sellers, and buyers at a total rate of 75 percent.

Today Colorado voters are deciding whether to approve the proposed excise and sales taxes, both of which can be raised as high as 15 percent. Based on how those taxes will affect retail prices, they are 10 times as high as the state tax on distilled spirits, by far the most heavily taxed alcoholic beverage. And that's before considering local marijuana taxes, which in Denver (assuming voters approve) will add another sales tax of up to 15 percent.

I am no fan of social engineering through taxation. But it's pretty clear that Colorado and Washington are not even trying to set tax rates based on the relative hazards posed by these products.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Acosmist||

    Soooo what's that social cost of alcohol? Do the bottles get behind the wheel and drive, or something?

  • Rich||

    Will Legalizing Pot Result in More or Less Drinking?

    Of course!

  • Almanian!||

    More or less, anyway.

  • ||

    These insanely high tax rates are going to bite them in the ass. Since everyone who smokes weed already gets it tax free and don't seem to be too afraid of getting caught, the only people who will end up paying the taxes by buying in a store are tourists, and maybe someone who has decided to try weed for the first time and has no dealer connections.

    The question is, will they realize this and reduce the taxes, or will they attempt to tighten their grip? Almost assuredly the latter, of course.

  • jester||

    Europe has been clamping down heavily on smuggled untaxed tobacco. It's why I always correct people who say 'legalize it and tax it the hell out of it.' No. Just legalize it, ass hole.

  • ||

    Also people who smoke so rarely that their dealer connections are rusty and inconvenient compared to just picking some up on the way home.

  • JidaKida||

    Sometimes man, you just have to roll with the punches. Thats all.

    www.PrivacyRoad.tk

  • Rich||

    increases in potency—which strike me as benefits of legalization but look like costs to analysts who worry that cheaper, stronger pot will magnify the hazards associated with marijuana consumption.

    Fuck your "2 Aleve"! You'll suck down those 8 Tylenol and *enjoy* it!

  • jester||

    Only a social engineer would ask that question. It's no one's fucking business. The reason marijuana should be legal is because it's no one's fucking business whether I use it. No other reason. The reason alcohol should be legal is that it's no one's fucking business whether I drink it.

  • Brandon||

    Bingo. But this viewpoint won't get you a sweet public-sector job with 100% security and guaranteed raises.

  • ||

    Wow, I couldn't care less if legalizing pot results in more or less alcohol use. The issue is one of individual liberty and every argument other than that just muddies that fact.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    It seems like "public health," whatever the fuck that is, is the latest trump card the slavers are using to stamp out liberty. Any behavior they disapprove of can be said to be against "public health".

  • ||

    Latest trump card? They've been building up to this for a while. It's why they also love the idea of nationalized health care.

  • Warty||

    Listen, you punk, I'm paying for your medical care, so it's only fair that you not be allowed to do anything that increases your chances of injury or causes you to feel any joy, at all, ever.

    How did you get out of your safetycage, anyway? And how did you get out of your safetystraitjacket?

  • ||

    You left it open after you, uh, visited me last night and then passed out. That'll teach you to get really drunk and stoned.

  • Almanian!||

    And - here again - we see the costs to society of drug and alcohol use. Ripping society apart, one ass rape at a time.

  • ||

    Ripping sphincters apart, one ass rape at a time.

  • Almanian!||

    Tu as raison, Monsieur

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    Would you guys just hurry up and get married already? All this courting is getting tiresome.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    I predict an increase in Domino's pizza consumption.

  • Rich||

    On the question of whether marijuana and alcohol are substitutes or complements, ... Pacula and Sevigny say the evidence "remains mixed."

    So, complements, then.

  • Almanian!||

    I only know that just LOOKING at the beaker full o' weed is already making me thirsty. Fuckers.

    *grabs ANOTHER Mountain Dew*

  • playa manhattan||

    Is that guy on the cover the one who won KWW's "pot businessman" contest?

  • Agile Cyborg||

    If you cared about public health it'd all be illegal and the prison building business a boomin'.

  • ||

    In the same way that the hoplophobes refuse to acknowledge that gun control kills children, the drug warmongers refuse to acknowledge that there simply are no adverse consequences to marijuana use.

    Comparing pot to alcohol does everyone a serious disservice, as the effects are almost diametrically opposite. Probably the main reason that the bloodthirsty warmongers hate and fear the weed is because it makes its users peaceful.

    Stoned driving? Not gonna happen! People who are stoned don't even _want_ to drive. You've got your stash, some tunes, some munchies, some friends over - who needs to go anywhere?

    As far as alcohol use, I have alcoholism, so had to stop using it. Abstention is the only known therapy for alcoholism. Marijuana can actually alleviate the adverse effects of alcohol withdrawal, notably, the "white knuckles" as a detoxing alcoholic toughs it out for another day. A couple of hits or a brownie, and the lack of alcohol isn't so bothersome.

    A basic truth about marijuana is that when stoned, everything - even television - is good. You must learn to be careful of this.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement