BOHANON & CUROTT: Lawmakers shouldn’t shut door on marijuana reform

Economic Analysis by Cecil Bohanon & Nick CurottIt looks like marijuana-reform legislation is off the radar screen of the 2019 Indiana General Assembly.

We bet the issue won’t go away for long, if for no other reason than adjacent states have recently changed their laws. Economic theory is clear on one point: Reforms of marijuana laws reduce the costs of marijuana use. Economists, therefore, predict its use will rise.

Just who increases their use of marijuana is the focus of much of the public relations optics from advocates on both sides. Pro-reform activists want us to believe the new users will be opioid addicts who ditch opioid prescriptions or heroin for marijuana. Anti-reformers want us to believe the new users will be vulnerable teenagers lured by increasingly available and now socially approved cannabis. Who is right?

Probably both. A 2018 study in the Journal of Health Economics concluded medical marijuana reduced opioid overdose deaths in states that had “active and legal dispensaries” for marijuana. A 2015 study by a different set of authors in the same journal concluded medical marijuana laws increased “current marijuana use, regular marijuana use and marijuana abuse/dependence among those aged 21 or above … (and) in marijuana use initiation among those aged 12–20.” Both used the best available statistical and econometric techniques, both studies are reputable.

As with lots of issues, the marijuana debate cannot be reduced to simple slogans. There are surely both benefits and costs associated with reforming marijuana laws. Potential benefits include reduced law enforcement and prison costs, better treatment of certain medical conditions, destigmatizing responsible pot users, increased labor force participation, substitution of more dangerous drugs, and reduced gains to organized crime.

Potential costs include new users, increased use and abuse by current users, opening a gateway to harder drugs, decreased workplace productivity, increased violent crime, and increased mental illness. Most all of these empirical claims are controversial. Honest researchers differ among themselves on the effects of marijuana use, the effects of different reform schemes on marijuana use, and the associated consequences.

We confess to being sympathetic to marijuana reform. Given our reading of the available literature and our commitment to a society of free and responsible individuals, we think the benefits of marijuana reform outweigh the costs. But our case isn’t a slam dunk and our minds could be changed. We hope Indiana policymakers will be open to further discussion.•

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Bohanon and Curott are professors of economics at Ball State University. Send comments to [email protected]

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