Who Does Marijuana Legalization Hurt?

In our most recent podcast, “Are We Ready to Legalize Drugs? And Other FREAK-quently Asked Questions,” we discussed drug legalization.  Here’s what Steve Levitt had to say on the benefits of legalizing marijuana, as compared to crack cocaine:

So crack cocaine is a really devilish drug because it gives you such an intense high for such a short period of time that your desire is just to get high over and over and over. It’s highly addictive, and it’s really hard to function when you’re a crack addict. But what it makes me think is that this experimentation we’re doing now with policy towards drugs like marijuana, and potentially it would be expanded over time is a good idea. Because I think when it comes to marijuana, the social costs of the prohibition of marijuana are just really low. Very few people in the United States are being killed over marijuana. The gangs are not making their money off marijuana. Marijuana in some very real sense is too cheap. It’s too easy to grow yourself and so it isn’t the source of all of the ills that come with prohibition. And so, so the gains of legalizing marijuana for society are much smaller than the gains would be to legalizing cocaine if you could control how the outcome came.

But does marijuana legalization really harm anyone?  Like poor minorities, for example?  Michael Kinsley, Andrew Sullivan, and David Frum recently debated that  question, as well as legalization in general, for Bloggingheads TV.  In an accompanying blog post, Sullivan points to Reihan Salam‘s recent post on the subject:

To say that we ought to legalize marijuana because marijuana doesn’t hurt anyone is to discount the fact that legalization will cause a collapse in the price of marijuana and that this price collapse will lead to an increase in consumption that will have unpredictable, and uneven, consequences…It seems likely, however, that a post-legalization world would also harm poor people more than rich people, and black people more than non-black people, albeit via different channels. In both cases, it is people raised in chaotic households, people who suffer from poor impulse control, and people who live in violent, high-poverty neighborhoods who will suffer the most. That is why the way we regulate marijuana should be informed by an effort to protect these populations. Full commercial legalization is not the best way to do that.

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  1. Kentucky Packrat says:

    I was told one time, “I don’t know how to get an illegal gun.” “I am not asking if you DO get weed, but CAN you get weed if you wanted?” “Yes, I could.” “Then you know how to get a gun.”

    Legalization will collapse the price of an already cheap item, yes, so use will modestly increase. However, legalization would also prevent the “gateway drug” effect, by removing the marijuana user from the black market.

    Marijuana is not a gateway drug because of its inherently intoxicating effects; in that regard both tobacco and alcohol are worse than it. Because marijuana is illegal and a low-profit item, there is an economic pressure on the marijuana dealer to get the user to purchase other, higher-margin items. Just like Verizon sells the $99 Android phone but pushes the Galaxy 20-whatever once you come in, the weed dealer really wants you buying cocaine or heroin.

    Legalization might make marijuana marginally more accessible to susceptible people (and I question this, since I suspect it’s nearly 100% accessible already), but it will actually make other drugs less accessible by severing the “marijuana-only” buyer from the drug dealing apparatus.

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    • David Killion says:

      Interesting perspective on the “gateway drug” aspect of legalization. I agree with your stance completely, but I want to make sure I understand the sources.

      Is there a study to show that removing a drug from a market will also significantly reduce it’s influence as a gateway drug?

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      • NZ says:

        I’m curious about your request for a study, since you agree with the stance and presumably accept its underlying logic and maybe also can corroborate it with some first-hand observation or even common sense.

        Do you feel that seeing a study would make it more acceptable to fully agree? Do you have any specific criteria that a study must meet?

        I ask because studies–especially on hotly debated topics like drug laws–can be found that indicate all kinds of things.

        Nixon commissioned one of the most exhaustive studies on the effects of drug laws. When the study came back showing drug laws to be disastrous, Nixon pigeon-holed it.

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      • Ally G says:

        Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that some drug dealers will cut marijuana with harder drugs (most often without the user’s consent). When the user goes back, and gets the “regular” stuff uncut, they don’t get the high they were looking for. That is when the dealer hooks them on something harder.

        The ‘unwilling’ gateway is removed. Remember too that drug dealers are sales people. They will offer you the harder stuff, and press you to buy it. If you move marijuana to government sanctioned sellers, there is no one pushing/advertising the harder stuff to you.

        In many ways, one can see how the ‘gateway’-ness of the drug is incapacitated in a legalized framework.

        Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 20 Thumb down 24
      • Not NZ says:

        I don’t see why you asking for a study a curious thing. Accepting a stance’s underlying logic and being able to corroborate it with anecdotal evidence does not a scientific basis for a policy stance make. Has Freakonomic not taught us all that?

        Also, NZ mentioned Nixon commissioning a study and then disregarding its results when it showed drug laws to be disastrous. Doesn’t this reinforce the need for exhaustive studies? What does NZ have against studies? I too find the idea of the gateway drug effect going away once marijuana is removed from the market interesting and potentially viable, but without real evidence to back it up it’s just another idea.

        A priori + anecdote != hard evidence

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      • NZ says:

        @Not me:

        In my curmudgeonly way, I was making a comment on the bizarre notion of agreeing with something first and asking for sources second.

        I’ve also noticed that “studies”, including many cited here on the Freakonomics blog, seem greatly flawed because they fail to take into account (note: not try and find false, but fail to even consider) something that common sense would ordinarily account for right off the bat.

        Anyway, in a “comments forum” setting where information is exchanged in a few paragraphs at most, underlying logic that sufficiently accounts for enough variables ought to be the most useful tool. If you can make an argument that makes internal sense and covers all the bases and objections I can think of, that’s more convincing than citing some study by some woolly-headed professors from the ivory tower.

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      • Not NZ says:


        “If you can make an argument that makes internal sense and covers all the bases and objections I can think of, that’s more convincing than citing some study by some woolly-headed professors from the ivory tower.”

        Except unintended consequences can spring from even the most noble and seemingly logical solutions. Without hard evidence, a claim about public policy doesn’t hold much merit.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • tn tx says:

        What exactly are these drug dealers “cutting” marijuana with? That isn’t something that typically happens. If you are referring to lacing, that happens from time to time, but most users aren’t likely to appreciate that.

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      • Harriet says:

        Comparing the cost an ounce of vodka with an ounce of marijuana is misleading. An ounce of vodka is not even going to get you very merry, while an ounce of marijuana will get you high several times.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        True, but $150 of cheap vodka can set you drunk many, many more times than you can get high on $150 of marijuana.

        My point is that this isn’t actually “cheap” compared to the existing alternatives.

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      • Doug says:

        An ounce of marijuana is a lot to consume. Roughly 28 “marijuana cigarettes” according to http://www.kirotv.com/videos/news/what-an-ounce-of-marijuana-looks-like/vg6S5/
        And the effect (high) is not the same as tobacco & vodka.

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    • David says:

      It seems to me that this is a simple case of the Law of Supply and Demand.

      While it is true that the legalization of marijuana will lead to greater consumption, there are other issues to consider.

      There is the question of pent up demand which exists because people who do not wish to break a Federal law nor travel to another state, may avoid buying the product. Once marijuana is legalized throughout the country, consumption should increase due to the addition of new “consumers”. Ultimately, the increase in demand will out strip the supply and the price of marijuana will rise. Eventually this rise will stimulate growers to increase output. Once the supply catches up with the demand, the price will begin to level off and commence to drop. This will cause producers to cut back production. If consumption rises or even stays the same, the price of marijuana will increase, and more will be released into the market. This cycle will constantly repeat itself.

      Now this produces an interesting paradox. Growers could stabilize prices by cutting back production, or they could differentiate, by grading special strains and charging different prices. Almost like a “plain” version of one type and a “luxury” version of another.

      So, despite all the debate, the results of legalizing marijuana are conjectural. Both sides have studies and statistics to support their views.

      Ultimately, legalization or prohibition comes down to personal views and ethics.

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    • anticorp says:

      I don’t know why folks say legalizing it will make it cheaper. Ever heard of taxes? Tobacco is legal – is it cheap? Liquor is legal – is it cheap? Everything is expensive and regulated – nothing is cheap. It cost what the market will bare.
      While I’m at it. Can you find a bigger gate than alcohol or poverty or a low paying job or unemployment? Depression – now there’s the gate to HE double toothpicks

      These are all red herrings.

      I don’t smoke it and I assure you making it legal will not interest me anymore than some other distraction, like facebook.

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  2. Greg says:

    There’s no evidence for that supposition though is there? Would consumption increase? You can get weed easily enouhh anyway.
    Also don’t taxes effectively make it almost as expensive as current black market weed.

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    • NZ says:

      The added non-monetary costs of having to break the law to buy something are always large, and often larger than imagined, especially when the law is drastic and widely enforced, the way drug laws are.

      In other words, the answer to your statement “You can get weed easily enough anyway” is “No, you can’t, not without a substantial amount of risk.” You also can’t consume it without some risk also.

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    • Average.Random.Joe says:

      Removing a large barrier to entry for the supply side would shift the curve to the right increasing Q. The demand may shift to the left but do you really think there are that many people wanting a product only due to it being illicit. I doubt it. The ones that would think that way, teens, will probably be banned from access to it anyway. It may decrease if you increase the vice tax on the product but that is really unknown variable.

      Black weed is going to have a higher price because the supply adds the cost of protection to the price too so as long as the tax isn’t greater than the already included illicit premium, your Q will increase.

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      • Bill McGonigle says:

        Conjecture isn’t necessary – Portugal ran this experiment already, 10 years ago. The results are clear – legalizing drugs and offering treatment programs cuts the usage rates just about in half.

        The issue isn’t solely that people are less likely to be afraid of using it – it’s that they’re *much* less likely to be afraid to seek treatment top stop using it.

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  3. Dan DuBeau says:

    When viewed in terms of the current prohibition, any change we make regarding marijuana policy is likely to be an improvement. The damage caused by the war on drugs is widespread and also has a disparate impact on the population, especially minorities. It’s still just a weed, and as such it will be equally available to everyone, therefore any disparate impact would be a symptom rather than a cause. Using government policy to regulate a weed because some groups are more likely to abuse it is just more of the same wrongheadedness that caused us to lose the war on drugs in the first place. Case in point, fast food: equally available to everyone but it has a more devastating impact on the poor. However, regulating fast food is definitely not the right response to that problem.

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    • NZ says:

      I disagree. There are plenty of changes we could make to marijuana policy that would be worse. To name a few:

      -Pursuing suppliers while relaxing regulations on the demand side, as many advocate. This would make the marijuana dealing scene more closely resemble the crack- and heroin-dealing scenes, as the stakes are raised, “commercial real estate” becomes more hotly contested, and marijuana dealers engage in a race to the bottom by having to associate with other more violent black market entities for protection and partnership. The nice college student who sells pot and the Californian yuppies who grow it will get out of the game; elementary-school-educated thugs and central American cartel chains will move in.

      -Continue down the road of medical marijuana. This sets up the idea that the only legitimate use for marijuana is to treat the symptoms of certain diseases and disorders–recreation is out. But of course, almost nobody with a marijuana prescription legitimately needs it for a medical reason. So, everyone begins to understand that people who support medical marijuana actually just want to be stoned for fun and have no problem lying to get their way.

      -Allow marijuana legalization advocates to continue to distance their drug of choice from other drugs. This creates more cognitive dissonance for the public and further entrenches the idea that “pot okay, other drugs evil”, even though it is the prohibition of opium and coca derivatives that does the most harm–particularly to minorities.

      -Continue to tolerate and encourage positive marijuana references in our media and culture while cultivation, sale, and consumption of the plant itself remains illegal. This creates a further forbidden fruit appeal, but also disrespect for the law. The worst possible combination for society is legal restrictiveness coupled with cultural permissiveness.

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  4. David Killion says:

    Referencing Salam’s response – how does marijuana differ from alcohol in this scenario? Don’t we have enough low-cost, mind-altering substances already available to those people who would be drawn to marijuana? Why would marijuana, even in its cheapest form suddenly become more attractive than 2-buck-chuck?

    So then we get to the argument of making alcohol illegal too … but we already tried that. Fail.

    From a principle perspective, marijuana, like alcohol, are choices we as people should be able to make in a free society. From a practical perspective, even if it were for the greater good to ban such substances – it creates crime, fills prisons and jails, and costs significantly in law enforcement. Leave it to local communities to decide – it is not a Federal issue.

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    • NZ says:

      The effects of marijuana are typically very different from alcohol. It’s a different “high.” The typical methods of ingestion alone are enough to ensure this: the body reacts differently to a substance entering the bloodstream through the alveoli than one entering through the digestive tract, even when it’s the same substance! Ask anyone who’s consumed marijuana both by smoking and by “edibles.”

      Also, there are many people who have used both marijuana and alcohol but have a strong preference for one or the other, or whose preference goes back and forth. If the two drugs were interchangeable this phenomenon would not occur nearly as much.

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      • Average.Random.Joe says:

        You are thinking to literal. It isn’t that they are exchangeable or that the high is the same. It is that there is high at all. The mind, mood, personality alteration that is similar to both. In fact, all the MJ users I know have much less detrimental alterations than alcohol users alterations.

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      • NZ says:


        “The mind, mood, personality alteration that is similar to both.”

        That’s simply not true. It is true that in both cases there are alterations, but aside from that binary condition the similarities typically end there.

        I can also alter my mind by spinning in circles, but I haven’t done it since I was 5 because I prefer the alteration I get from a couple beers, which is very different.

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  5. Edie Novicki says:

    Am I confused? Doesn’t the social costs of tens of thousands of ruined lives, especially minorities, caused by the incarceration of users count? And this does not include the resulting fatherless families, the introduction of non-criminals (smokers) to the real criminal element in prison, the “Us vs Them” societal norm, etc., etc., etc.

    I can go on but this whole thread seems reminiscent of “Reefer Madness.”

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    • Steve says:

      What does the disproportionate effect on minorities have to do with the price of tea in China? Nothing.

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      • Michael Peters says:

        He’s responding to the OPs argument that legalization would have a disproportionate effect on minorities with the fact that it already does. It’s called a rebuttal.

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  6. fancycwabs says:


    “We’re keeping marijuana illegal because legalizing it would disproportionately hurt black people?”

    By doing what? Keeping them out of prison for minor drug infractions?

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    • NZ says:

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      • Travis says:

        They are mutually exclusive, though. The idea that maintaining prohibition is an effort to “protect” these minority communities is premised on the idea that prohibition would be less harmful than legalization.

        But not only is there no real basis for that argument – since an increase in consumption would not necessarily increase any adverse social or physiological effects – but the current system of prohibition already has severe adverse impacts on those “vulnerable” communities, in addition to incredibly high costs to society in general.

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      • NZ says:


        “The idea that maintaining prohibition is an effort to “protect” these minority communities is premised on the idea that prohibition would be less harmful than legalization. ”

        Legalization would not be 100% un-harmful to any community, least of all minority communities. The point is that legalization would be less harmful than prohibition both to any given community individually and to America overall.

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  7. Yazan Odeh says:

    I think legalizing marijuana will benefits the majority of the population who are what we call “users” ,basically because the fear factor of buying it are no longer exists which will make them more comfortable around people once they are using it plus the social look to them will change dramatically since it becomes legal and it won’t be any different from tobacco or alcohol for that matter! Eevnthoug I consider marijuana are better than cigarettes or alcohol because it makes you less aggressive than Vodka and you can’t smoke a larg number of joints like cigarettes!.

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    • nequelquepart says:

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • James says:

        Even if those criricisms were valid, they’re only your purely subjective viewpoint. Where’s the OBJECTIVE evidence that lacking much in the way of a work ethic is worse (or better) than being a type A workaholic? Likewise, what makes those social circles ‘wrong’, other than your (rather narrowminded, IMHO) prejudices?

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      • Explodicle says:

        “a principle criticism of people who do drugs is that they fail to show any work ethic”

        Weasel words – you’re stereotyping…

        “I can’t see the legalization of drugs improving anyone’s standard of living, education, or wealth”

        You can’t see anyone being sent to prison, denied a scholarship, or losing a job because of drug prohibition?

        “Remind me why if I am a business owner I want to hire someone who was high last night or this morning?”

        Because you’re in the business of selling widgets, not policing people’s free time. Any irrelevant hiring restrictions will just result in worse workers for the wage offered.

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      • nequelquepart says:

        James: For a more objective response poll business owners not college students. Unless you are a Walmart greeter (Not intending to belittle their value), your alert sharp mind, motivated spirit (you want to work), unimpaired physical abilities, and sound judgment are all part and parcel to your successful employment. I won’t argue pot’s merits as opposed to alcohol, but both impair ones abilities in someway, and the effects last beyond one’s free time. Studies have proven this and it is the minority who use drugs and alcohol extensively that contribute positively to their employment. That’s my biased opinion, but if you were to look at it from my point of view factoring in what it takes for a business to succeed, you would likely share it.

        My choice between a seldom impaired individual and a frequently impaired individual who’s not into keeping his mind clear, should be obvious to anyone and not require extensive study. Likewise if you care about your community, you would want more clear and unimpaired heads, not less. Its not easy to succeed in a competitive business environment, and there are plenty who value their time enough that they don’t bother with pot. And if you don’t value your own time, why on earth would I presume that you would value mine?

        “Weasel words – you’re stereotyping… ”
        No, my fried, I am making the best choice for me based on the information I have on hand. Essential to any free market.

        “Because you’re in the business of selling widgets, not policing people’s free time. Any irrelevant hiring restrictions will just result in worse workers for the wage offered.”
        Question on your post: Relevant to who? If I’ve taken risks and invested my life and future in a business, the best people are not irrelevant. And a pot-head all other things being equal represents a higher risk. You can argue otherwise, but the experts in pricing risk on the market (Insurance companies) would confound your argument.

        God bless, my friends

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      • James says:

        “For a more objective response poll business owners not college students.”

        The opinions of business owners are hardly going to be objective here. I’m fairly sure that virtually all business owners would be estatic if their employees all showed up early, and were willing to stay late and put in many hours of unpaid overtime – certainly I’ve worked for a number like that – but that really says nothing about the quality of life of their employees.

        To me, it’s just one more facet of the squirrel cage economy. People are sucked in to working long & hard producing vast quantities of consumer junk, so that they can afford to buy the consumer junk they work so hard to produce, and never stopping to wonder whether it’s really improving their lives at all. While I don’t see the attraction of drugs myself, I certainly have chosen to spend less time working, and more hiking, skiing, and playing with the horses & dogs. So I guess you could say that I too fave a poor work ethic, and I’m glad of it!

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      • nequelquepart says:

        James: I think given todays market the golden rule applies.
        He who has the gold makes the rules. As much as the drug user will want to talk up his value, he cannot force employers to adopt his viewpoint. The employer will want to reduce both cost and risk and the labor has no say in telling him how to do that. They can only accept the wage or try knocking in another door. In our safety and risk-centric world, legalization of drugs will not change this and in fact may open users up to more scrutiny, bias, and discrimination.

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      • James says:

        I think that in today’s world, its actually more a case of government making the rules, as employer drug testing tends to be imposed – de jure or de facto – on employers who otherwise might not care.

        Even so, it’s still a lifestyle choice, not all that different from my choice to live in a rural area rather than Silicon valley, even though I could make at least 2-3 times as much money there.

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      • NZ says:

        “[drug use is] still a lifestyle choice, not all that different from my choice to live in a rural area rather than Silicon valley”

        You’ve painted drug use as morally neutral. How would you justify that?

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  8. Rick says:

    Do you really think there are “tens of thousands” of people of any color in prison for minor marijuana offenses? We can hardly keep them incarcerated for major felonies. Hyperbole doesn’t help the credibility of any argument.

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    • Edie Novicki says:

      Um. How long have we been fighting the war on MJ? Nobody said that there were tens of thousands “currently” in prison. But if you consider the last 30 years I would say that tens of thousands of incarcerated for pot offenses is an underestimate. And the stigma and peripheral penalties of being a convicted felon are the same no matter how long you spend in prison.

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    • NZ says:

      I agree 100%. Thumbs up.

      I’d add, though, that in this case it is not “hyperbole” so much as “obfuscation.” If you’re a violent gang member, it’s a lot easier for a cop to bust you for drugs than to bust you for a violent or property crime. Combine this with the plea-bargaining effect, wherein the thug agrees to plead guilty to the drug charge–and maybe name some higher-ups in his drug organization–and in exchange the violent crime charge is dropped. So you end up with “tens of thousands” of violent criminals in jail whose official rap sheets list only drug offenses, creating a wet dream for drug legalization propagandists.

      By the way, I see this as a further argument for drug legalization–a cause which I support–but I detest the lack of integrity so pervasive in the legalization campaign.

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    • Average.Random.Joe says:

      Have you seen the incarceration rates in the US in total and per capita? 716 per 100,000, highest in the world. North Koreas is unknown but the estimates based on defectors reports, who are going to be biased to the high end, of 600-800 per 100,000. Even if the worst that defectors was true, we would be second only to NK. If there is any hyperbole it is in “hardly keep them incarcerated” than that “tens of thousands” of any minority, ethnic group, or race for MJ charges. If there is a problem of hardly keeping major felons in prison, it is due to overcrowding the prisons with too many felons. Why not make minor felonies not felonies (preferred) or at least less jail time or no jail time.

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    • Dynise Basore-Ranfagni says:

      Actually, by the “drug tzar’s” own website, https://www.ncjrs.gov/ondcppubs/publications/pdf/whos_in_prison_for_marij.pdf, that roughly 1 percent would translate into about 7500 people in jail annually for simple possession.

      A large number of law enforcement officials have gone on record as saying that cannabis is less dangerous than alcohol…a majority of domestic violence calls involve alcohol abuse and those are the incidents in which officers are most likely injured and killed.

      It should be legal, and regulated in the same way as alcohol, which has virtually no health benefits. For those who say that medical marijuana users just want to get high, you have never had a loved one suffer from cancer and its treatment who has actually been able to maintain their body weight because of its use.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        “Jail” isn’t “prison”, though. Most convicts don’t go to an actual prison unless they have incarceration sentences exceeding one year (sometimes three years in California).

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      • James says:

        Jail isn’t prison? Let’s see… Iron bars, check. Locks on the doors, check. Guards who’ll shoot you if you try to leave without permission, check. So explain just why you think there’s a significant difference.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        The guards don’t usually shoot escapees from local jails (or minimum security prisons, in many places).

        The biggest factor in recidivism for jail vs prison is location: jail is near your family, so it’s easier to maintain your support network. You also can often keep your job through a work release program, which is a hugely important system that keeps inmates out of trouble (not lounging around bored), inmates’ families fed and housed (income), and reduces recidivism (the inmate has a job when he gets out, so is less tempted to deal drugs).

        Jails also have people in for mostly misdemeanors and lesser felonies (drunk driving, simple possession, domestic violence), which means that the inmate is exposed to fewer gang recruiters.

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      • James says:

        Sorry, but people who escape from jails are shot on occasion. Just do a search of news reports.

        I’m not entirely sure what you’re getting at with proximity to family/support networks &c. I suppose those would be nice for those who have them, but they don’t change the fact that you’re locked up. That’s the essential identity of jails & prisons.

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      • NZ says:

        @Enter your name…:

        “…jail is near your family, so it’s easier to maintain your support network. You also can often keep your job…”

        Why wouldn’t this include “support networks” such as drug gangs, and “jobs” such as drug dealer?

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