Vogel: The Pot Debate

Nov 1, 2017

In 2004, the Vermont Legislature essentially removed all state-level criminal penalties for the use and possession of marijuana for patients who got a letter from a physician.

Now, 13 years later, the list of diseases for which some doctors prescribe marijuana has greatly expanded, and so has the number of patients using it. So it’s disappointing to learn that the Vermont Medical Society wants to put the brakes on continuing the process of legalization.

The first reason they give is that marijuana use is dangerous for adolescents. And while that’s probably true, it’s also somewhat irrelevant since no one proposes allowing sales to teenagers.

The Medical Society also points out that Vermont’s treatment facilities are inadequate. But treatment facilities for people with most types of addictions are inadequate. And both arguments could be made in regard to alcohol and tobacco – which can also be harmful to adolescents. Both cigarettes and alcohol are regulated by the State and neither can be legally sold to minors.

One might argue that selling tobacco and alcohol in stores makes it easier for teenagers to obtain them, and maybe that would also be true of marijuana if it were legalized. But even now, Vermont teenagers don’t seem to have much trouble obtaining it, and who knows what kind of dangerous impurities are in the unregulated marijuana they’re buying. Surely a more sensible and effective approach would be to develop a system based on the one we use to regulate the sales of tobacco.

Just as we do with cigarettes, we could tax marijuana and use some of the proceeds to educate people, especially young people, about the potential harmful effects of misuse. It’s an approach that’s actually reduced cigarette smoking. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that “the proportion of US adults who smoke cigarettes declined from 20.9% in 2005 to 17.8% in 2013.” And this reduction occurred across all age groups (except those over 65), with the largest decrease among those between 18 and 24.

If we legalize marijuana, it’s reasonable to do things like prohibit sales to teenagers, include warning labels in packaging and levy taxes that can be used for education and treatment. But to oppose legalization simply on the basis of the potential for abuse in the wrong hands ignores the fact that nearly all over the counter drugs, including aspirin, can be misused, and can be harmful - and even potentially fatal - to adolescents.

[Tag] John Vogel is a retired professor from the Tuck School of Business.