Commentary Magazine


Which Is the Lesser of the Evils?

Colorado legalized the selling of marijuana beginning January 1 and the punditocracy largely does not approve. David Brooks of the New York Times writes that “In legalizing weed, citizens of Colorado are, indeed, enhancing individual freedom. But they are also nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be.”

Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post writes “widespread legalization is a bad idea, if an inevitable development. Washington state will be the next to light up, in a few months. A measure is heading to the ballot in Alaska this year, along with measures in Oregon and California. As with gambling — also a bad idea, by the way — more states are certain to feel the peer pressure for tax dollars and tourist revenue.”

I’m not an advocate for pot. I think that, unlike alcohol in moderation, it makes you stupid while giving you the illusion of being brilliant. And it surely must be bad for one’s health. Sucking smoke into your lungs has a pretty bad track record in that regard after all.

But unlike Brooks and Marcus, I’m not opposed to its legalization. I would state as a general principle that it is a bad idea to forbid what the government cannot substantially prevent and which a substantial portion of the population has no moral objection to. We should have learned this lesson with Prohibition, which was supposed to get rid of demon rum and gave us Al Capone instead.

When something with a large market is outlawed, entrepreneurs will try to tap into the huge profit premium produced by its being illegal and they will succeed in doing so. And unlike hard drugs and alcohol, marijuana can be easily grown nearly anywhere in the country and requires minimal industrial processing. It is already about as hard to obtain as Coca-Cola. Any commercial disputes those entrepreneurs have will be settled in parking lots with guns, not court rooms with lawyers. Tax money will be spent trying, unsuccessfully, to suppress an illegal product instead of being earned taxing a legal one.

So now, because the states can be the “laboratories of democracy,” we’re going to have an experiment. As the Wall Street Journal wrote this morning, “Colorado and Washington voters may come to regret their decision if they notice a surge in drug use, or more violence, or a generation of underdeveloped young people. Legalization, once achieved, will be hard to reverse. Better, then, to let Colorado go first, and watch what happens.”

We are about to find out which is the lesser of the evils, legal or illegal marijuana.