As Prohibition Crumbles, Cannabis Consumers Are Less Apt to Abuse It

Legalization may improve marijuana's benefit-to-cost ratio.


Jacob Sullum

According to study published this week, the percentage of American adults who use marijuana more than doubled between 2002 and 2012. In my latest Forbes column, I explain why that news is not as alarming as the press coverage implied:

It stands to reason that legalizing marijuana, by making it easier, cheaper, and less risky to obtain, would encourage consumption. That is mostly a positive development, since it implies greater consumer satisfaction as more people enjoy a product that prohibition made harder to get. But it also stands to reason that as marijuana consumption rises, so will marijuana-related problems. The extent of those problems is a big part of the current debate about the wisdom of emulating Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska by treating marijuana suppliers as legitimate businesses instead of criminal organizations.

Contrary to what prohibitionists tend to assume, the increase in marijuana-related problems following legalization may not be proportional to the increase in consumption. It's plausible that people prone to excess are less likely to be deterred by prohibition than people of more moderate habits. If so, problem users may represent a smaller share of cannabis consumers after legalization than they did before, which means marijuana's benefit-to-cost ratio would improve. A study published yesterday by JAMA Psychiatry provides some evidence that as the number of cannabis consumers increases, the percentage who experience serious cannabis-related problems will decline.

That is not the way most news outlets presented the study's results. "Marijuana use has more than doubled in the U.S. since the beginning of the century," NBC News reported, "but so have problems for users." Reuters' gloss was similar: "As attitudes and laws in the US have become more tolerant of marijuana, the proportion of adults using and abusing the substance at least doubled between 2001 and 2013." Under the headline "Marijuana Use—and Abuse—in the U.S. Has Doubled in the Last Decade," Newsweek declared that "marijuana use disorders are now a bigger problem than ever." These alarming reports not only exaggerate the bad news in the study; they overlook the good news.

Read the whole thing.

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  1. Fox News is warning the childrens will be getting candy Ecstasy in their trick-or-treat bags this Halloween.

    1. Unless the dealer was high, no one would do such a thing. The Ecstasy is much more valuable sold to people who know what it is and want the psychoactive effects (thus are willing to pay for it), and if you’re going for the ‘ginning up new customers’ angle, someone who doesn’t know what it is they took or from who they got it (being mixed in with the rest of the night’s haul) isn’t going to be coming back.

      Or was your remark a satirical commentary on media scaremongering?

      1. Or was your remark a satirical commentary on media scaremongering?

        I think it’s that one.

      2. Someone’s sarcasm detector needs calibrating.

        Some news outlet should do a story on those bastards who would hand out toothbrushes instead of candy. That’s the real scandal.

        1. I actually saw what he did there, I was just trying (and evidently failing) to give a mildly humorous response by taking it perfectly serious. The question at the end was intended as the indicator that I knew I was being silly.

        2. One of my wife’s friends gives out almonds to the children. I’m amazed her house hasn’t been targeted by children with molotov cocktails.

      3. You’re thinking too much. Just listen and believe.

  2. That is not the way most news outlets presented the study’s results.

    Balko is right that journalists don’t so much have a liberal bias as a power bias, and the powers that be tell them that any recreational drug use with be the death of us all. Combine that will lazy reporting and the desire for attention-grabbing headlines no matter how untrue and you get that kind of analysis.

    1. recreational drug use

      The cognitive dissonance in isolating alcohol from all the other drugs has always given the game away, that prohibition is about power, not protecting people.

      1. To be frank – the desire to protect people is always about power.

      2. But alcohol is *legal*!

        Why, oh why, can you not get that difference through your head?

        *** wrings hands ***

    2. journalists don’t so much have a liberal bias as a power bias

      Close, but not quite the bull’s-eye. What they have is an activist bias. Activists tend to have a power bias, so you’re not far from the mark, but sometimes activism conflicts w power. The journalist wants to set us right. S/he uncovers what s/he considers important facts, & expects people to act on them.

  3. It stands to reason that legalizing marijuana, by making it easier, cheaper, and less risky to obtain, would encourage consumption.

    Cease discouraging consumption =/= encouraging consumption.

    I know it’s easy to fall into this Statist word-equivalence trap (giving = not taking, not giving = taking), but we should avoid it because it twists reality.

    1. Don’t be pedantic. It’s exactly the same idiomatic usage as saying that lower prices encourage consumption, or relocating a store can encourage consumption. If making something illegal discourages consumption, making it legal encourages consumption.

      1. Its a very important distinction – and no, *not discouraging* something is not equivalent ot encouraging it.

        1. It is equivalent, sometimes. A store with too much of a product reduces the price precisely to encourage consumption. Governments routinely reduce taxes and red tape to encourage use. I’d like a better explanation of why reducing criminal penalties can not also encourage consumption.

          1. If heroin was made legal tomorrow would you decide to become a junkie? No?

            Well, I think that answers your question.

            1. Ooooh,, I’m the entire market? Cool.

              Flat statements backed up by bupkis are really impressive.

              1. A lack of penalties is not encouragement. Removing a disincentive is not in itself an incentive. Saying “I won’t whip you if you do this” is not the same as “Do this or I will whip you.”

                You’re engaging in Tony-logic. That requires a broken brain. Is your brain broken?

                Keep this up and I will have to conclude that you are a moron, and I’ll put you on the same list of idiots that includes Tony, PB, american socialist, JackAss, and such.

                1. You smell of elderberries.

                  That incentive enough for you to ignore me? Is that the logic you want?

                  1. I think what they’re trying to say is this:
                    Imagine there is a road in your town where the speed limit is lower than all the other roads (and the cops have a boner for enforcing it). You’re being discouraged from using this road. Now imagine the government raised the speed limit on this road to the average. You wouldn’t be being encouraged to use this road, you’re just no longer discouraged.

        2. Compared to what? You’re comparing to a baseline of 0 intervention. Most people compare to the status quo. You’re discussing change, so it makes sense to discuss the change in terms of change.

  4. But it also stands to reason that as marijuana consumption rises, so will marijuana-related problems

    Why? I’ve always assumed that many of the marijuana-related problems are ultimately caused by prohibition. People don’t have a safe environment in which to learn about the drug and how it affects them. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Many people on Reason have argued that lowering the drinking age will reduce teenage drinking problems. The same logic should apply here.

    Again, you’re using Statist reasoning.

    1. *Marijuana-related* problems may rise – while *prohibition-related* problems decrease.

      Also an important distinction.

    2. ***cough***obesityduetomunchies***cough***

  5. Have adult users actually doubled in the past ten years? Or is it actually the number of adults who will now admit being users?

    Legalization not only encourages use; it also encourages candor about use.

    1. Bingo!

      You also see the same thing even in reporting problems. My sister is from Colorado and was talking about the breathless reports about how people seeking attention at hospitals for marijuana use has “skyrocketed” (no decimal equivalent, either, just anecdotes). She couldn’t possibly conceive that maybe the frequency in incidences at the hospital could really just be seeing the same number of incidences, but people weren’t scared to go to the hospital about an illegal substance and that this could actually be a GOOD thing.

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