Economists Petition to Legalize Pot


In what may be a further trend toward full legalization of marijuana in the US, an online petition is drawing attention because it recruits economists. This is newsworthy because economists are usually stereotyped with accountants as some of the most conservative of the professions. If they are pro-legalization, that adds significantly to the push.

The petition is in the form of an open letter to high ranking members of the US Government, including governors, the President and Congress. Only economists with a university affiliation are allowed to sign, which makes it somewhat more notable than the usual online petition.

The arguments put forth are based on a study about the costs of marijuana prohibition. It claims that, along with $7.7 billion in savings (dropping enforcement), if marijuana were taxed like alcohol and cigarettes, it would also generate revenues of $6.2 billion (both figures annual).

Interestingly, the letter also states, quite clearly, “The fact that marijuana prohibition has these budgetary impacts does not by itself mean prohibition is bad policy. Existing evidence, however, suggests prohibition has minimal benefits and may itself cause substantial harm.” And that’s where the arguments lie.

Existing harms, those which legalization would address, are the costs of enforcement and the consequences of punishment – both from imprisonment and fines/loss of work/treatment. The back-peddling is in the letter because economics can only tell us the fiscal consequences – it cannot tell us the moral or non-monetary harm. So, for example, the harm that legal alcohol and tobacco causes is substantial, and not all of it comes in economic terms. Someone who cannot work because of an addiction is counted as a debit to the economy, but there is no way to account for the human misery and tragedy that an addiction causes.

That’s the real argument, the one the numbers don’t tell us much about. Dropping enforcement of many laws would save money. But we don’t do it because the other consequences are untenable. However, in a time where there is a push to reduce government spending, the economic argument has more appeal. This try at it might have some traction.


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