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.

Kentucky Packrat

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.


David Killion

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?


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.


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.


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.

Dan DuBeau

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.


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.


David Killion

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.


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.


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.

Edie Novicki

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."



"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?


Both legalization and prohibition of marijuana--and most other drugs--disproportionately hurts black people. The two notions are not mutually exclusive.

Yazan Odeh

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!.


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.

Edie Novicki

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.


Reihan's point might be true that poorer and non-white people would be more likely to have easier access to the drug in an open market, but the current legal regime already harms poor people and black people far more than it harms middle class whites as they are much more likely to be arrested and jailed for the drug in the first place. Such arrests and the accompanying criminal record, particularly with convictions and prison sentences, are far worse than the possible harms of occasional use. Note: these are arrests for possession, not prison terms for possession in the term of "incarceration". Arrests are still an injustice we should seek to eliminate and are not simply some variety of personal inconvenience, particularly for poorer people who may lose employment and income over such "inconveniences".

The other problem with his argument is that it supposes that the taxes that governments might apply would be low enough to reduce the price. The taxes on marijuana in CO and WA are much higher than those applied to alcohol in most states, which suggests that it probably will not substantially reduce the market price paid by consumers to be a substitute good. There are still worries among legalisation advocates that it will not depress the illicit black market sufficiently because the price may be too high.


washington man

this is some good detail but also racist in the prosses, how do you predict that African Americans use marijuana more then Caucasians. last time I saw there were more Caucasians that use this more then African Americans.

yes this has good points that it will effect poor people but its their choice to use, pot is not an addictive drug. its only addictive to people that think they need it.