This past week, I served as a guest host on Louisiana Public Broadcasting’s “Louisiana Public Square.” The program creates a public space for deliberative and thoughtful conversations around contemporary issues. This month’s program focused on the decriminalization of marijuana.
The slow but certain liberalization of opinion toward marijuana means that eventually the law will follow suit. Here is why:
- Generational Shifts: Gallup recently reported that a majority of Americans (58 percent) now favor legalizing marijuana. That number alone is striking, but it masks important differences across age groups. Sixty-seven percent of the 18-29 age group. People in my age demographic (nearing 50) grew up with marijuana in the background of parties and have more liberal attitudes toward legalization. The times they are a-changing.
- Laboratories of Democracy: One of the great things about federalism is that states can serve as laboratories of democracy by experimenting with policy. If the experiments in Colorado and Washington work – meaning that they raise tax revenue and spur economic development without offsetting social costs (e.g., increasing in crime) – they will spread to other states and regions. As was the case with state lotteries, when neighboring states legalize marijuana laws there will be pressure on other states to follow suit. If Mississippi or Texas legalize marijuana, Louisiana won’t be far behind. The false promise will likely be that legalization will expand the tax base and solve all of our budget woes. It won’t, but taxing and regulating marijuana will be a strong argument in the battle over public opinion.
- Scientific Discovery: Evidence isn’t the most important factor in policy shifts, but it does matter. The scientific and policy-related evidence is increasingly on the side of liberalization. Marijuana, we are discovering, has very real health benefits. Moreover, many of the adverse effects are not nearly as bad as once feared. Marijuana is not a harmless substance but it may be less harmful than alcohol and certainly doesn’t belong in the same class as harder and more dangerous drugs. It is possible, of course, the new evidence may force us to revise this conclusion, but right now the evidence seems to be moving the debate toward legalization.
The path to legalization also seems relatively clear:
- Reform of sentencing laws and decriminalization. Louisiana residents already express support for reforming sentencing and making sure that possession charges do not lead to significant jail time.
- Legalizing medical marijuana. It is not clear to me if decriminalization or medical marijuana happens first, but both set the stage for the possibility of legalization. Louisiana already has provisions that allow, in theory, for medical marijuana in the case of cancer, Crohn’s disease, and glaucoma, but the law does not actually allow for medical marijuana in practice.
- Legalizing marijuana.