April 22, 2009

If Pot Were Legal: Pros and Cons of an Alternate World

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As a blogger, my job is often to present news stories and provide commentary so as to begin a conversation. Sometimes, though, an article comes along where you don’t have to do much talking.

NPR released a fictional news story on April 20 on its “All Things Considered” radio program. The question they considered was simple: What if marijuana had been legal in the US for two years and was treated like alcohol in terms of taxation, regulation and who it could be sold to? What would the world be like?

This article comes nearly a month after President Obama held a virtual town hall meeting in which he answered questions submitted via the WhiteHouse.gov Web site. One of the most popular questions he dealt with was whether to legalize marijuana to improve job creation and the economy.

“I don’t know what this says about the online audience,” Obama said, grinning before slipping into a slight chuckle. His response was brief, with no explanation before he moved on. “The answer is no, I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow our economy.”

To brush aside the issue was perhaps not Obama’s best move. I have no firm opinions on the subject, though I have heard arguments from both sides of the issue and would have liked to heard Obama’s rationale.

Thankfully, NPR was able to provide some information to consider. To understand how the world might change after legalizing pot, they consulted various experts, such as Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard economist who’s researched the marijuana market, Gerry Goldstein, a prominent criminal defense attorney in San Antonio who’s represented marijuana smokers and dealers, and Robert Almonte, director of the Texas Narcotic Officer’s Association.

Some of the answers are predictable. More people would use it, and that nationwide academic performance would be affected since many new users would be college students. Others are more subtle. For instance, the Latin American drug cartels would not be crippled. Instead, they would develop and sell more potent marijuana along with cocaine and heroin, and would dabble in other forms of profitable crime such as human trafficking and kidnapping.

As I said, you should read the article to learn more. But NPR suggests legalizing marijuana would not be the magic bullet many hope or promise. Like many decisions, it would have both positive and detrimental effects, and would not cause certain things to change. In a world that often hopes for quick changes, it’s a reminder to temper our optimism with caution.