Are there perils in legalizing pot?

With all of the recent activity and debate on legalizing marijuana, we sometimes neglect the arguments in opposition to it.  David Frum offers a rebuttal to the legalization argument at Newsweek/Daily Beast today, which asks whether we want to add another detrimental influence on upward mobility and prosperity at this particular moment in time:

When we discuss marijuana, we usually bog ourselves down in a too-familiar debate about legalization. Prior to that question, however, let’s consider another: what should we think about marijuana and the way Americans use it? For if there’s one thing on which we can all agree, it is that legalization will mean even more use by even more people.

Habitual marijuana users experience more difficulty with learning and schooling. They do worse at work, miss more workdays, and suffer more accidents. They have fewer friends and occupy lower rungs on the socioeconomic ladder.

Does marijuana cause these problems? That’s hard to say. The National Institute for Drug Abuse offers a cautious read of the brain science: “Research has shown that, in chronic users, marijuana’s adverse impact on learning and memory can last for days or weeks … As a result, someone who smokes marijuana every day may be functioning at a suboptimal intellectual level all of the time. Research into the effects of long-term cannabis use on the structure of the brain has yielded inconsistent results. It may be that the effects are too subtle for reliable detection by current techniques.”

Frum acknowledges that this might be a chicken-egg issue. Do people who habitually smoke marijuana become less productive, or do less productive people use marijuana? In other words, what is the cause and effect dynamic in play — and is there one at all? Frum doesn’t answer that but instead says that marijuana is “a warning to heed, a behavior to regret and deplore.” That’s certainly true, but that’s also true of many behaviors that don’t lead into a government prohibition, either, such as excessive drinking and gambling, the latter of which is not just tolerated but in some cases are provided by the states in the form of lotteries.

Frum then offers the core of his argument:

It’s baffling to me that people who profess anxiety about the trend to social inequality will so often endorse drug legalization. A world of legal drugs will be a world in which the fates of the top one third of Americans and the lower two thirds will diverge even more than they already do. A world of weaker families, absent parents, and shriveling job opportunities is a world in which more Americans will seek a cheap and easy escape from their depressing reality. Legalized marijuana, like legal tobacco, will become a diversion for those who feel they have the least to lose.

We don’t ban tobacco use, either, and the state makes a fortune off of taxing it. That puts the government at all levels in the rather hypocritical position of becoming scolds over its use while funding itself from the sales of the product it deplores. Some legalization advocates wonder why we can’t extend the same kind of treatment to marijuana, which isn’t exactly a barn-burner of an argument for legalization, either.

I get where Frum is going with this piece. Legalization will increase use and make marijuana more socially acceptable, and we certainly can be concerned about the deleterious effect that will have on a culture that already seems like it’s going off the rails. However, the federal prohibition isn’t exactly a benevolent reality, either. The better choice would be to allow voters in each state to decide what kind of laws they want about marijuana use and have the federal government get out of the way. We can look at the results of these choices in a closer light and compare and contrast legalization with prohibition more rationally.

There are always perils in freedom. But freedom has benefits that usually outstrip the perils.