Marijuana Prohibition Is a Moral Scandal Built on a Mountain of Lies

Why the war on weed is unscientific, unconstitutional, and unjust


Next Thursday I am scheduled to debate Robert White, co-author (with Bill Bennett) of Going to Pot: Why the Rush to Legalize Marijuana Is Harming America, on Glenn Beck's radio show. Each of us will get half an hour or so to make his case before taking questions from Beck and each other. Here is what I plan to say:

Marijuana Prohibition Is Unscientific

A few days before the House of Representatives passed a federal ban on marijuana in June 1937, the Republican minority leader, Bertrand Snell of New York, confessed, "I do not know anything about the bill." The Democratic majority leader, Sam Rayburn of Texas, educated him. "It has something to do with something that is called marihuana," Rayburn said. "I believe it is a narcotic of some kind.

That exchange gives you a sense of how much thought Congress gave marijuana prohibition before approving it. Legislators who had heard of the plant knew it as the "killer weed" described by Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger, who claimed marijuana turned people into homicidal maniacs and called it "the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind." Anslinger warned that "marihuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes" and estimated that half the violent crimes in areas occupied by "Mexicans, Greeks, Turks, Filipinos, Spaniards, Latin Americans, and Negroes may be traced to the use of marihuana."

Given this background, no one should pretend that marijuana prohibition was carefully considered or that it was driven by science, as opposed to ignorance and blind prejudice. It is hard to rationally explain why Congress, less than four years after Americans had emphatically rejected alcohol prohibition, thought it was a good idea to ban a recreational intoxicant that is considerably less dangerous.

It is relatively easy, for example, to die from acute alcohol poisoning, since the ratio of the lethal dose to the dose that gives you a nice buzz is about 10 to 1. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 2,200 Americans die from alcohol overdoses each year. By contrast, there has never been a documented human death from a marijuana overdose. Based on extrapolations from animal studies, the ratio of the drug's lethal dose to its effective dose is something like 40,000 to 1.

There is also a big difference between marijuana and alcohol when it comes to the long-term effects of excessive consumption. Alcoholics suffer gross organ damage of a kind that is not seen even in the heaviest pot smokers, affecting the liver, brain, pancreas, kidneys, and stomach. The CDC attributes more than 38,000 deaths a year to three dozen chronic conditions caused or aggravated by alcohol abuse.

Another 12,500 alcohol-related deaths in the CDC's tally occur in traffic accidents, and marijuana also has an advantage on that score. Although laboratory studies indicate that marijuana can impair driving ability, its effects are not nearly as dramatic as alcohol's. In fact, marijuana's impact on traffic safety is so subtle that it is difficult to measure in the real world.

Last February the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released the results of "the first large-scale [crash risk] study in the United States to include drugs other than alcohol," which it described as "the most precisely controlled study of its kind yet conducted." The researchers found that once the data were adjusted for confounding variables, cannabis consumption was not associated with an increased probability of getting into an accident.

That does not mean stoned drivers never cause accidents. One challenge in assessing the extent of the problem is that many of the drivers who test positive for marijuana are not actually impaired, since traces of the drug can be detected long after its effects wear off. That means marijuana-impaired drivers get mixed in with drivers who happen to be cannabis consumers but are not under the influence while on the road, which would tend to mask the drug's role in crashes. Still, alcohol is clearly a much bigger factor in traffic fatalities.

Last year, during a congressional hearing on the threat posed by stoned drivers, a NHTSA official was asked how many traffic fatalities are caused by marijuana each year. "That's difficult to say," replied Jeff Michael, NHTSA's associate administrator for research and program development. "We don't have a precise estimate." The most he was willing to affirm was that the number is "probably not" zero.

The likelihood of addiction is another way that marijuana looks less dangerous than alcohol. Based on data from the National Comorbidity Survey, about 15 percent of drinkers qualify as "dependent" at some point in their lives, compared to 9 percent of cannabis consumers. That difference may be especially significant given the link between heavy alcohol consumption and premature death.

All told, the CDC estimates that alcohol causes 88,000 deaths a year in the United States. It has no equivalent estimate for marijuana. We may reasonably assume, along with Jeff Michael, that marijuana's death toll is more than zero, if only because people under the influence of cannabis occasionally have fatal accidents. But the lack of a definitive answer highlights marijuana's relative safety, which points to a potentially important benefit of repealing prohibition: To the extent that more pot smoking is accompanied by less drinking, an increase in cannabis consumption could lead to a net reduction in drug-related disease and death.

The comparison of alcohol and marijuana presents an obvious challenge to anyone who thinks the government bans drugs because they are unacceptably dangerous. If anything, that rationale suggests marijuana should be legal while alcohol should be banned, rather than the reverse. Judging from this example, the distinctions drawn by our drug laws have little, if anything, to do with what science tells us about the relative hazards of different intoxicants.

Marijuana Prohibition Is Unconstitutional

When dry activists sought to ban alcoholic beverages, they went through the arduous process of changing the Constitution, which prior to the ratification of the 18th amendment in 1919 did not authorize Congress to prohibit the production and sale of "intoxicating liquors." When Congress banned marijuana in 1937, it did so in the guise of the Marihuana Tax Act , a revenue measure that authorized onerous regulations ostensibly aimed at collecting taxes on production and distribution, with severe penalties for noncompliance. But by the time marijuana prohibition was incorporated into the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, there was no need for such subterfuge. Instead Congress relied on its constitutional authority to "regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the several states."

The Commerce Clause, which was part of the original Constitution, did not change between 1937 and 1970. But beginning with a series of New Deal cases, the Supreme Court stretched its meaning to accommodate pretty much anything Congress wanted to do. In the 1942 case Wickard v. Filburn, for example, the Court said the Commerce Clause authorized punishment of an Ohio farmer for exceeding his government-imposed wheat quota, even though the extra grain never left his farm, let alone the state.

The Court went even further in the 2005 case Gonzales v. Raich, ruling that the federal government's power to regulate interstate commerce extends even to homegrown marijuana used for medical purposes by a California patient in compliance with state law. That decision, unlike Wickard, applied not just to production but to mere possession. According to the Court, the Commerce Clause encompasses the tiniest trace of marijuana in a cancer patient's drawer. "If Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause," observed dissenting Justice Clarence Thomas, "then it can regulate virtually anything—and the Federal Government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers."

Many conservatives who pay lip service to the Constitution and the system of federalism it is supposed to protect nevertheless seem comfortable with this audacious assertion of congressional authority. In fact, they complain that the Obama administration is not using the Controlled Substances Act to shut down the newly legal marijuana markets in Colorado and Washington. Either they do not really believe in federalism or they cannot think straight when they smell marijuana.

Marijuana Prohibition Is Unjust

Even if marijuana prohibition were consistent with science and the Constitution, it would be inconsistent with basic principles of morality. It is patently unfair to treat marijuana merchants like criminals while treating liquor dealers like legitimate businessmen, especially in light of the two drugs' relative hazards. It is equally perverse to arrest cannabis consumers while leaving drinkers unmolested.

Peaceful activities such as growing a plant or selling its produce cannot justify the violence that is required to enforce prohibition. In the name of stopping people from getting high, police officers routinely commit acts that would be universally recognized as assault, burglary, theft, kidnapping, and even murder were it not for laws that draw arbitrary lines between psychoactive substances.

The main justification for those laws is protecting people from their own bad decisions. The hope is that prohibition will deter a certain number of people who otherwise would not only try marijuana but become self-destructively attached to it. Toward that end, police in the United States arrest hundreds of thousands of people on marijuana charges each year—nearly 700,000 in 2013, the vast majority for simple possession. While most of those marijuana offenders do not spend much time behind bars, about 40,000 people are serving sentences as long as life for growing or distributing cannabis. And even if marijuana offenders do not go to jail or prison, they still suffer public humiliation, legal costs, inconvenience, lost jobs, and all the lasting ancillary penalties of a criminal arrest.

Note that the people bearing these costs are not, by and large, the people who receive the purported benefits of prohibition. The person who, thanks to prohibition, never becomes a pathetic pothead goes about his life undisturbed while other people—people who never hurt him or anyone else—pay for the mistakes he avoids. Even paternalists should be troubled by the distribution of these burdens.

I am not a paternalist, because I do not believe the government should be in the business of stopping us from hurting ourselves. I am with John Stuart Mill on this:

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant….Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Marijuana prohibition, along with the rest of the war on drugs, is a flagrant violation of this principle. It is a moral outrage built on a mountain of lies.

This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.

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  1. Terrific article, as usual, Mr. Sullum! I hope the debate will be available on-line.

    "Many conservatives who pay lip service to the Constitution and the system of federalism it is supposed to protect nevertheless seem comfortable with this audacious assertion of congressional authority."

    The motivation of conservatives' support for the war on marijuana consumers usually is described as combination of bigotry and corruption. - They pander to the bigotry of many in their base (especially fundamentalist religious) and likely receive support from the varied powerful interests that profit from the monstrous persecution.

    There is another possible motive. They perceive most marijuana consumers as liberals and/or Democrats, and so enjoy the idea the fraudulent prohibition makes criminals out of their opponents.

    1. To summarize the argument opposing Sullum's:

      Feigned disbelief, something about gateway drugs, something about children, a few completely made up statistics, and an appeal to authority.

      1. And don't forget FYTW.

    2. Conservatives oppose drug legalization for the same reason they oppose marriage legalization (gay marriage, etd) 🙂

      1. And that reason is....?

      2. Because FAMILIEEEZZZ!!!!11

        1. And deh childrenz! Don't forget about deh childrenz!

  2. The following text is taken directly from the US government's National Cancer Institute website: http://www.cancer.gov/cancerto.....onal/page4


    One study in mice and rats suggested that cannabinoids may have a protective effect against the development of certain types of tumors. During this 2-year study, groups of mice and rats were given various doses of THC by gavage. A dose-related decrease in the incidence of hepatic adenoma tumors and hepatocellular carcinoma was observed in the mice. Decreased incidences of benign tumors (polyps and adenomas) in other organs (mammary gland, uterus, pituitary, testis, and pancreas) were also noted in the rats. In another study, delta-9-THC, delta-8-THC, and cannabinol were found to inhibit the growth of Lewis lung adenocarcinoma cells in vitro and in vivo. In addition, other tumors have been shown to be sensitive to cannabinoid-induced growth inhibition.

    Cannabinoids may cause antitumor effects by various mechanisms, including induction of cell death, inhibition of cell growth, and inhibition of tumor angiogenesis and metastasis. Cannabinoids appear to kill tumor cells but do not affect their nontransformed counterparts and may even protect them from cell death.

    There is far more to be found there on anti-tumor effects but I'm limited here due to commenting restrictions.

    1. Malcolm:

      Here's another interesting one from PubMed where they concluded individuals suffering traumatic brain injuries were more likely to survive if they had the cannabinoid THC in their system.

      "There were 446 cases meeting all inclusion criteria. The incidence of a positive THC screen was 18.4 per cent (82). Overall mortality was 9.9 per cent (44); however, mortality in the THC(+) group (2.4% [two]) was significantly decreased compared with the THC(-) group (11.5% [42]; P = 0.012). After adjusting for differences between the study cohorts on logistic regression, a THC(+) screen was independently associated with survival after TBI (odds ratio, 0.224; 95% confidence interval, 0.051 to 0.991; P = 0.049). A positive THC screen is associated with decreased mortality in adult patients sustaining TBI."


    2. Now you'd think that a report by an OFFICIAL BRANCH OF GOVERNMENT would be more than enough to at the very least move cannabis off the Schedule I blacklist. You know, the one where substances "have no medicinal value".

      But of course not. The study wasn't done by the correct Official Drug Study Program. You know, the one where the results aren't scientifically generated, but dictated to the scientists by Drug War Top Men.

      1. I suspect most, if not all, of the substances on that list actually do have medicinal value. For example, anabolic steroids have saved or prolonged lives due to reversing the wasting caused by diseases such as cancer or AIDS. I've also read where MDMA (Ecstasy) showed promise in treating severe depression that did not respond to other treatments. The whole concept od Schedule 1 is flawed. It's all about politics, misinformation, and the desire for control. Saving "families" and "saving people from themselves" is just a lame cover story.

  3. All basic stuff to anyone that reads the news carefully or reads Reason. In the long run White loses. Pot prohibitionists don't even have a majority on their side anymore.

    1. Give 'im Hell!

    2. Heh, I remember when newspapers like the Boston Globe called libertarians crazy for their politically incorrect views on drugs

  4. How about series on Why the Drug War is Harming America and Destroying Liberty?

    Beck pretends to care about that. I care far more about freedom than people getting high.

    1. They are not mutually exclusive. Some people care about both.

  5. Another argument against weed:
    Scienfoology Song? GAWD = Government Almighty's Wrath Delivers

    Government loves me, This I know,
    For the Government tells me so,
    Little ones to GAWD belong,
    We are weak, but GAWD is strong!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    My Nannies tell me so!

    GAWD does love me, yes indeed,
    Keeps me safe, and gives me feed,
    Shelters me from bad drugs and weed,
    And gives me all that I might need!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    My Nannies tell me so!

    DEA, CIA, KGB,
    Our protectors, they will be,
    FBI, TSA, and FDA,
    With us, astride us, in every way!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    My Nannies tell me so!

  6. For many people, law and morality are one and the same. So if something is illegal, then it is immoral. It is immoral because it is illegal, and it is illegal because it is immoral. Circular logic.

    For these people, marijuana use is a test of morality. Someone who uses marijuana is immoral because they're breaking the law. So what if marijuana isn't harmful and there's no constitutional basis for making it illegal. That's not the point. The point is that it's a morality test. Make it legal and it will be more difficult to test a person's morality by testing them for marijuana.

  7. "I make a lot of money off of weed, why would I want it legalized?" -Trevor Phillips, GTA V

  8. Stupid punk cops, go find some real criminals to harass!

  9. I had forgotten how angry the majority decision in Raich had made me.

  10. Mr. Sullins- national geo is devoting an entire issue to MJ shortly. I just read the online article. I think it has some additional points to offer you - or anyone interested in a genuine scientific conversation on the subject. And fuck those nanny-state, Constitution-tromping assholes. It was entirely in in-controversial just a few years before that one needed an amendment to prohibit a substance for human consumption. The War on Drugs is one of the greatest legal hijacks in history and has resulted in more human suffering than we will ever be able to calculate.


    1. NatGeo is really lacking in the naked Third World women pics these days.

      1. Yeah...they are forsaking their base

  11. Another comment thread that could've been recycled.

  12. There are many weed related deaths, though they are the direct result of the war on drugs: fighting over black market turf, people dying while incarcerated.

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  14. Actually it's a crime against humanity.

  15. "Whose interests are served by the drug war? The U.S. government enforces a drug cartel. The major beneficiaries from drug prohibition are the drug lords, who can maintain a cartel that they would be unable to maintain without current government policy." - - Milton Friedman

    "Conservatives who favor federal 'wars' on drugs, gambling and other behaviors should understand the damage they have done to the constitutional underpinnings of limited government." - - George Will

    "The amount of money and of legal energy being given to prosecute hundreds of thousands of Americans who are caught with a few ounces of marijuana in their jeans simply makes no sense - the kindest way to put it. A sterner way to put it is that it is an outrage, an imposition on basic civil liberties and on the reasonable expenditure of social energy." - - William F Buckley Jr.

  16. The War on Drugs is a hate-crime that does little more than create a class of socially acceptable targets to hate.

  17. How about the racism? It is intentional:

    "Look, we understood we couldn't make it illegal to be young or poor or black in the United States, but we could criminalize their common pleasure. We understood that drugs were not the health problem we were making them out to be, but it was such a perfect issue...that we couldn't resist it." - John Ehrlichman, White House counsel to President Nixon on the rationale of the War on Drugs.

    "[Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks" Haldeman, his Chief of Staff wrote, "The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to."

    "Modern Prohibition/War on Drugs is the most destructive, dysfunctional and immoral policy since slavery & Jim Crow - Retired Police Detective Howard Wooldridge

    Citizens Opposing Prohibition

  18. Govt authorities and politicians started this war with the beginning of the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914. That was the beginning of what led up to tweaking drug laws with schedule classes, restrictions, the prohibtiion of marijuana in 1937, further harder drug law tweaking of the Boggs Act in the 1950's, in 1973 the DEA was created and in the 80's, congress passed extreme sentences of mandatory lengths of insane time over drug sentences. It's done nothing but contribute to societal problems and has led the US to be the world's greatest prison incarcerator and yet any drug one wants can still be bought and sold in any major US city 24/7. It's the ENFORCEMENT of drug laws that is 1000x worse than if the masses would've been left to their own devices over personal consumption issues. Once upon a time, during the 1st decade of the 1900's, pharmacies and even places like Sears sold cocaine,heroin, THC elixirs, ect. over the counter and by mail order. The amount of addicts was nowhere near the amount that officials at the time claimed. The addicts skyrocketed AFTER the drug laws started being enforced.Govt turned an insignificant problem into the monster that it is today. When all these laws are overturned and it will happen, the amount of addicts will DECREASE, not increase.

    1. +1 Amendment

  19. This must be one of those robot machine written articles that an author of a book about it was speaking to on NPR today. Forbes uses it extensively.

  20. Marijuana prohibition is a multi billion dollar business. Law enforcement, the legal profession, government municipalities and the prison system (both gov't and private) are beneficiaries. They represent the lion share of the moneyed interests lobbying for the status quo. What is right or just or in the best interest of the public has little or no bearing on the issue. Government is a cesspool dominated ethically bankrupt individuals whose influence is always for sale. If you want better government, stop voting for incumbents. They are the problem and never the solution.

  21. I agree. Our new laws save hundreds of lives every year, on the highways alone. In 2011 a study at the University of Colorado found that, in the thirteen states that legalized medical marijuana between 1990 and 2009, traffic fatalities have dropped by nearly nine percent, while sales of beer went flat by five percent.

    Marijuana has many benefits, most of which are never mentioned in American newspapers. Research at the University of Saskatchewan indicates that, unlike alcohol, cocaine, heroin, or Nancy ("Just say, 'No!'") Reagan's beloved nicotine, marijuana actually encourages brain-cell growth. Research in Spain (the Guzman study) and other countries has discovered that it has tumor-shrinking, anti-carcinogenic properties. These were confirmed by the 30-year Tashkin population study at UCLA.

    Drugs are man-made, cooked up in labs, for the sake of patents and profits gained by them.

    Marijuana is a medicinal herb, the most benign and versatile in history. "Cannabis" in Latin, and "kaneh bosm" in the old Hebrew scrolls, quite literally the Biblical Tree of Life, used by early Christians to treat everything from skin diseases to deep pain and despair.

    What gets me are the politicians, prosecutors, and police who pose on church steps or kneeling in prayer on their campaign trails, but can't face the truth about cannabis, safe and effective for thousands of years, and celebrated by most of the world's major religions.

  22. Okay, Greg Abbott, don't be an ass.


  23. Yea make sure to point out the immorality of this so many hard right conservatives listen to Glenns show and none them seek out the truth about the war on drugs in general they just for some reason believe the government on this issue

  24. One suggestion, Mr. Sullum. Bennett's strategy likely involves heart-rending anecdotes. If you're speaking first, it would be wise to defuse that maneuver with an introduction that goes something like this:

    "We all know of terrible, tragic stories of individuals whose drug addiction got them injured, ruined or even killed. But, in order to look at this issue rationally, we have to remember that 'the plural of "anecdote" is not "data"' - a principle that my opponent surely accepts in his better work in other issues. What follows is data, from real studies. If you're expecting a move of the goal posts, I'm afraid you'll have to wait until my opponent begins."

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  26. Prohibition punishes responsible users to protect irresponsible abusers.
    Patrick Kennedy couldn't control his appetite for drugs, so he wants responsible pot smokers jailed, and other temptations eliminated.

    Prohibition overrides personal responsibility.

  27. I'm given to understand the Commerce Clause actually says have a substantial effect on inter-state commerce. Is this true?

    By ignoring the qualifier of "substantial", the Feds claim it gives them the power to do more or less anything, as Justice Clarence Thomas accurately says...

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