Behind Billows of Smoke: Why Colorado and Washington Made the Right Decision


Colorado and Washington have become the first U.S. states to legalise the possession and sale of marijuana for recreational use. I find this a sensible development and I congratulate the responsible voters. I do so while I never, ever used marijuana or anything like it (I never even took a single puff on a cigarette) and while I live directly above a coffeeshop (I still wonder why they called them coffeeshops). Let’s look at some reasons why legalisation could should even make sense to conservatives.

Whatever is legal can be regulated

Perhaps the most important argument in favour of legalisation is that whatever is legal can be regulated, and whatever can be regulated, can be controlled. Most accidents happened because people bought soft drugs of a bad quality or of varying substances. If it is legalised, regulation can be instituted as is the case with alcohol. If people want to use, they can experience how they react, learn what to expect, and adjust their using behaviour, as they can with regard to alcohol (no-one, I hope, starts drinking alcohol downing a bottle of whisky).

Reducing criminality

Another major argument is that legalisation will reduce criminality. Massive criminal networks exist because the production, supply, and usage of (soft) drugs are illegal. They can exist and demand premia from users because no alternative exists and market mechanisms are ruled out. Perhaps counter intuitively, they thrive on the illegality of drugs. If production were legalised, in a controlled fashion, some criminals would go out of business – they would not be able to compete. You may find an interesting precedence in the Prohibition era.

Whatever is legal is less exciting

In other words, whatever is forbidden is “cool”. This holds for marijuana as well. Many of the accidents happen because inexperienced youngsters are dared into using. Legalisation might not lead to a reduction of usage, although that is certainly a possibility, it is at least equally unlikely that it would lead to significantly increased usage on the longer term.

The best possible example is my own country, the Netherlands. Using soft drugs has been legal for a long while (although they are, regrettably, tampering with this legislation), and usage rates are actually estimated to be lower than many of the countries surrounding us. This may be explained by many factors, but one conclusion must inevitably be: legalising need not necessarily lead to people ruining their future by being high every day!

It is telling that I grew up in the Netherlands and was never really tempted to use marijuana, but living in London it only took a month before, at a Friday night, I ended up in a group of which the members tried to dare each other into using, because one of the guys had “met a guy that knew another guy which had a stash.” As I said: whatever is legal is less exciting.

Perhaps on a side note: marketing for marijuana can (and perhaps should) still be disallowed, so that no “new” demand is created.

Liberal values and the law

Of course, liberal values play an important role. Even if legalisation would lead to increased usage, this may not necessarily be a bad development. According to some, drinking alcohol is addictive, as might be eating chocolate or working out in the gym – but does that mean we should forbid it altogether? Living in the Netherlands, many of my friends have used marijuana, but all did with care. Using marijuana can be a relaxed end to a 12-hour working day, and need not lead to nuisance at all. Increased usage may thus be welfare-enhancing. Don’t kid yourself, people have been using for centuries if not way longer – it is not some recent development.

In the case of alcohol it is well-known that some people handle it better than others – check out your own group of friends, I’d suggest. For some it holds that the more they drink the more aggressive or vandalistic they become. This is firstly a case of personal responsibility – if you know you can’t handle it, don’t use it. But secondly, if some users do not act responsibly, than there is the law to correct this. Shattering bus stops or physical abuse is perfectly punishable by law, whether the aggressor used or not. Therefore, let’s not ruin the pleasure of most by focusing on the misbehavings of a few.

In relation to the last point, the problem is largely one of perception: those using alcohol and drugs may more often be the ones causing troubles. But there is little proof that they would not have been misbehaving if they had not used! These phenomena, drugs and alcohol usage on the one hand, and misbehaving on the other, may be causally linked for some people, but to a large extent they just happen to be correlated (or, more specifically, they share a cause, for instance, poverty or a lack of self-control).

Finally, I’d like to remark that I do not really believe in forbidding usage. If people want to use, they will find a way – as they did during the Prohibition era. I believe more strongly in making it discussable. My mum told me that if I ever wanted to use, she rather had me do it at home the first time. If you can talk about it with your children, you can actually prepare them, so that in time they can make their own decision as to whether they want to use or not. And as noted above: when you can talk about it, as I could when I was young (I kind of hope I can still be regarded as “young”), there is nothing so extremely exciting about it.

Hard drugs

As regards hard drugs things are incredibly different. Hard drugs, as far as I can tell, are infinitely more addictive and almost impossible to use responsibly. People using hard drugs do not just become relaxed and hungry as most do; they lose total control. Hence: keep it prohibited. There is no reason to confuse soft drugs like marijuana with hard drugs.

Conclusion

Legalise marijuana – it’s in everyone’s interest. Oh, and people of Colorado and Washington: I think I know a way to celebrate your decision …

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