In December 2013, Uruguay passed a law permitting the growing, distribution and consumption of marijuana. The legislation comes into effect in April 2014. The state will regulate the industry to ensure good quality strains of the crop are grown and sold. It will also tax the industry.
Uruguay is the first country to legalise cannabis, but in July 2012, Colorado and Washington states in the USA passed laws permitting the sale and possession of small amounts of the drug for recreational use. (It was already legal to possess the drug for medical use.) The laws took effect a few months later. It is heavily taxed, however, especially in Washington, where it is taxed at a rate of 25% three times over: when it is sold to the processor; when the processor sells it to the retailer; and when the retailer sells it to the consumer. In Massachusetts, Nevada and Oregon, medical cannabis shops will be permitted to open this year. In the Netherlands, although the sale of cannabis is still illegal, ‘coffee shops’ are permitted to sell people up to 5 grams per day.
So should cannabis be legalised? People have very strong views on the subject and this can make a calm assessment of the issue more difficult. The economist’s approach to legalising cannabis involves seeking to identify and measure the costs and benefits of doing so. If the benefits exceed the costs, then it should be legalised; if not, it should remain illegal (or made illegal). The problem is that the size of the costs and benefits are not easy calculate as they involve estimates of things such as consumption levels, tax revenues, crime reduction, the effects on the consumption of other drugs, including legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco.
Nevertheless, various estimates of these costs and benefits have been made and provide a basis for discussion.
Possible benefits of cannabis legalisation include: increased tax revenues for the government; reduction in crime, and hence reduction in law enforcement and prison costs; encouraging people with addiction problems to seek help, as they would not fear arrest; reduction in the price, benefiting users; regulating quality of the drug; reducing the consumption of alcohol and more dangerous drugs if these are substitutes for cannabis; moral arguments concerning freedom of individuals to choose their lifestyle.
Possible costs include: increased consumption of cannabis, with attendant health and social side effects; increased consumption of other drugs if they are complements, or if cannabis is an ‘entry level’ drug to harder drugs; moral objections to drug taking.
Clearly some of these costs and benefits are easier to measure than others. Moral arguments are almost impossible to assess quantitatively, even when various underlying moral standpoints are agreed.
The following articles look at recent events and at the arguments, both economic and non-economic.
As Uruguay moves to legalise cannabis, is the ‘war on drugs’ finished? Metro (20/1/14)
Regulating the sale of marijuana: Global perspective Journalist’s Resource, John Wihbey (17/1/14)
Next Step in Uruguay: Competitive, Quality Marijuana Independent European Daily Express (IEDE) (12/1/14)
U.S. support for legalization of marijuana at an all-time HIGH Mail Online, Anna Edwards (7/1/14)
14 Ways Marijuana Legalization Could Boost The Economy Huffington Post, Harry Bradford (7/11/12)
Colorado pot legalization: 30 questions (and answers) The Denver Post, John Ingold (13/12/12)
Economists Predict Marijuana Legalization Will Produce ‘Public-Health Benefits’ Forbes, Jacob Sullum (1/11/13)
Economics of Cannabis Legalization Hemp Today, Dale Gieringer (10/10/93)
Pros & Cons of Legalizing Marijuana About.com: US Liberal Politics, Deborah White
Would Marijuana Legalization Increase the Demand for Marijuana? About.com: Economics, Mike Moffatt
Time to Legalize Marijuana? – 500+ Economists Endorse Marijuana Legalization About.com: Economics, Mike Moffatt
A cost benefit analysis of cannabis legalisation Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex
Licensing and regulation of the cannabis market in England and Wales: Towards a cost–benefit analysis Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex, Mark Bryan, Emilia Del Bono and Stephen Pudney (9/13)
What Can We Learn from the Dutch Cannabis Coffeeshop Experience? Rand Drug Policy Research Center, Robert J. MacCoun (7/10)
Licensing and regulating the cannabis market in England and Wales Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex, Stephen Pudney (15/9/13)
- If a country legalises cannabis, what is likely to happen to the price of cannabis? Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate your argument, considering the effects on both demand and supply. How are the price elasticities of demand and supply relevant to your answer?
- What externalities are there from drug use?
- What externalities are there from making cannabis illegal?
- Distinguish between complementary and substitute goods for cannabis? How is the demand for these likely to be affected by legalising cannabis?
- Go through each of the benefits and costs of legalising cannabis and identify difficulties that might be experienced in quantifying these costs and benefits?
- If cannabis were legalised, how would you set about determining the optimum rate of tax on cannabis production, processing, distribution and sale?
- Consider the arguments for and against legalising cannabis from the perspective of (a) a free-market liberal and (b) a social democrat who sees government intervention as an important means of achieving various social goals.