'Is the Government Going to Hand Out Free Marijuana to Those Who Can't Afford It?'


On Friday the New York Times Freakonomics blog ran a debate about marijuana legalization featuring NORML's Paul Armentano, Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron, former pot smuggler Robert Platshorn, former DEA Assistant Administrator Mike Braun, and Joel Hay, a professor of pharmaceutical economics and policy at the University of Southern California. Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I'm encouraged by the predictable lameness of the arguments against repealing marijuana prohibition.

Sounding like Clinton drug czar Barry McCaffrey circa 1996, Hay declares, "There isn't a shred of scientific evidence that marijuana is safe and effective for any medical condition." Hay says this just before noting that "THC, the active ingredient of pot, has been approved by the FDA and on the market in capsule form since 1985." Even if we ignore thousands of years of experience with marijuana as a medicine, along with recent studies of raw cannabis and cannabis extracts, FDA approval of the plant's main active ingredient as a safe and effective treatment for AIDS wasting syndrome and the side effects of cancer chemotherapy, based on double-blind clinical trials, does seem to count as at least a few shreds of evidence. You could argue that smoking marijuana introduces hazards by exposing patients to combustion products, but epidemiological studies of pot smokers are mostly reassuring on that score. Furthermore, vaporization addresses this concern by releasing THC without burning the plant matter. You also could argue that smoked or vaporized marijuana has no meaningful advantages over Marinol, the synthetic THC capsule, although many patients would disagree, noting that marijuana takes effect right away, offers much easier dosage control, has less disturbing psychoactive effects, and does not require swallowing and keeping down a capsule (a challenge for people suffering from severe nausea). You could even say that raw plant matter is not an appropriate medication in this day and age, when every drug must be approved by the government in isolated form after rigorous testing. The one thing you cannot honestly say is that "there isn't a shred of scientific evidence that marijuana is safe and effective for any medical condition." 

Braun, for his part, offers what he considers a devastating series of hypotheticals (featuring the usual stoned airline pilots and school bus drivers) and rhetorical questions:

Is the government going to hand out free marijuana to those who can't afford it? If so, who pays for that? Is it O.K. with you if the government or corporate America opens a marijuana distribution center in your neighborhood, or should they only establish them in the economically depressed areas of town? Which government agency will be responsible for rigorous testing to ensure that marijuana sold in the marketplace meets the strictest of consumer standards and is free of pesticides and drugs such as LSD and PCP? Which government agency is going to be responsible for taxing your next-door neighbor when he starts growing marijuana in his back yard, adjacent to your prized roses, of course? What happens when the taxes on marijuana become so excessive from covering all the ancillary costs of legalization that the vast majority of users simply grow the product themselves? Then who will pay for all of this? 

Is this the best prohibitionists can do? Maybe not. It's not hard to come up with better arguments against legalization. But for decades drug warriors have felt no pressing need to do so, because they were confident there was no real threat to the status quo. If public opinion is in fact becoming more favorable toward reform, they may soon find that the usual vacuous litany does not do the trick anymore.