David R. Henderson  

Hayek on Medical Marijuana

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Yesterday, as co-blogger Art Carden noted, was the late Friedrich Hayek's birthday. I want to honor him by pointing out his insight about medical marijuana. Really? Medical marijuana? But, you're probably saying, Hayek never discussed marijuana, medical or otherwise.

That's true. But what he did discuss in what is probably his best article, "The Use of Knowledge in Society," is why economic freedom is the only way to get much of people's information used. Hayek called this information that is specific to the individual "the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place." Modern economists in the Hayekian tradition use the shorthand, "local knowledge."

Hayek contrasted this kind of knowledge with "scientific knowledge." But here's where I would apply Hayek to "out-Hayek" Hayek: scientific knowledge is, itself, largely the product of decentralized activity. We do better at science when the government does not centralize it and does not get to say which leads should be followed and which ones should not.

Which brings me to medical marijuana. In a May 1 article in Wired, "Study: cannabis compound might have use as an HIV drug," Ian Steadman reports on a research article in the Journal of Leukocyte Biology. Here's the lead paragraph:

The chemical compound in cannabis, THC, appears to be able to damage and weaken the most common strain of the HIV virus.

Of course, as Steadman points out, we won't know until further research is done, whether these results will pan out. But the point is that by letting researchers test various chemicals, we raise the odds of their finding cures for diseases. Gordon Tullock, in his underappreciated book, The Organization of Inquiry, made similar points to mine about the value of allowing decentralized research.

The ultimate centralization is prohibition. Under which system will we get more testing for the possibly-beneficial effects of medical marijuana: one where marijuana is allowed or one where it is prohibited?

HT to Scott Shackford.



COMMENTS (11 to date)
Brian writes:

David,

You said "Under which system will we get more testing for the possibly-beneficial effects of medical marijuana: one where marijuana is allowed or one where it is prohibited?"

Well, it's the one where marijuana is allowed, of course, but you've asked a leading question. To see the problem with it, substitute a different word in for marijuana, such as plutonium. The answer is still "the one where plutonium is allowed," but that answer doesn't seem so right anymore.

The issue of whether to allow marijuana or not comes down to what effects can be expected. If fewer resources are spent on law enforcement and people are more free to do as they please, that's a good thing. But what if after legalization a large portion of the population frequently gets high, leading, say, to more accidents on the road and lower productivity at work? What if legalized marijuana makes a significant part of the population unemployable? Prudent governance suggests we should determine what effects legalization is likely to have before legalizing it. And if the effects are clearly a net negative, legalization should not be pursued. If, on the other hand, the effects are clearly a net positive, then go for it!

David R. Henderson writes:

@Brian,
Prudent governance suggests we should determine what effects legalization is likely to have before legalizing it.
Note your use of the word "determine." We can't determine it; that's the Hayek insight.
Also, instead of plutonium or marijuana, substitute the term "natural gas." If natural gas had been illegal for decades, do you think the government would have allowed to be sold a substance that is invisible, has no odor, and blows up when ignited?

Arthur_500 writes:

I really hate the discussion of Medical Marijuana as I find it patently false. As one person stated, everyone in California has a medical need for pot.

Pot may actually help certain patients. However, the overwhelming majority of individuals use pot to get high. This is not unlike the large number of people who want to consume enough alcohol to get a little buzzed.

In general Libertarians utilize a hands-off attitude towards personal choices. If you want to smoke a cigarette and it kills you that is your choice. If you want to hire a medical professional who is not a licensed doctor then go for it. You should have the freedom to make the choices you make in life and the freedom to suffer any consequences.

I suggest that people quit talking about Medical marijuana and just speak the truth - they want to get high and should have the freedom to do that on their own time.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Arthur_500,
You may hate the discussion of medical marijuana but that hardly means that what I said is false. Are you really saying, Arthur, that you can not conceive of marijuana being helpful for some medical conditions?

MingoV writes:
The ultimate centralization is prohibition.
Prohibition proves national government power, but it isn't really economic centralization. The ultimate centralization would be legalization of marijuana but with crop growth, preparation and THC content, delivery, distribution, and sales all fully controlled by the national government with full recordkeeping at every step, including purchase tracking (as with pseudoephedrine).

The pseudoephedrine situation is deplorable. A commonly purchased, safe, over-the-counter drug is more difficult to purchase than an amphetamine prescription. Sales are tracked and tallied for every purchaser, and purchasers can be arrested for exceeding a monthly cutoff (even if they are buying for a family). There also is a limit on how much pseudoephedrine can be purchased per day. The states all acceded to this violation of federalism.

KevinC writes:

When Brian suggests

Prudent governance suggests we should determine what effects legalization is likely to have before legalizing it.
I think we ought to flip the presumption. In a free society, the legality of any given action is the default position; it's all legal until the government says otherwise. The burden is, or should be, always to explain why something should be illegal, not why it should be legal. Therefore prudent government should explore the effects of criminalizing a substance. It seems to me that if the government had been keeping to this type of presumption, then a lot of time, money, and lives could have been spared in this drug war.

Noah Yetter writes:

But what if after legalization a large portion of the population frequently gets high, leading, say, to more accidents on the road and lower productivity at work?

People high on marijuana tend to drive safer, not more dangerously, so we'll leave that one aside.

If everyone got high all the time and productivity fell, that would be in accordance with individuals' preferences, broadly construed. Some of us might be worse off as a result but many would be better off.

Never forget that utility is determined by preferences. When people get what they want, they are better off. When people are prevented from getting what they want by the law, they are worse off.

NZ writes:
People high on marijuana tend to drive safer, not more dangerously
To anyone arguing for legalizing drugs, this is an example of a claim from which you should try to distance yourself.
NZ writes:

In what I'd consider a complimentary post to this one, David Friedman just blogged about potential health effects of nicotine, and how you're not likely to hear about them for a while.

The reason: it's not really about being right, it's about which team you're on.

As an advocate of drug legalization, here are my tips for arguing for the cause:

-avoid claims about the benefits of drug use, how much better off we'd be if we let tons of "non-violent drug offenders" out of jail, or how much money our government would save by taxing legalized drugs

-to prove you're not high on your own supply, agree up front that a lot of the aforementioned claims are bogus, and distance yourself from them

-focus instead on how drug legalization would increase border security, cut funding to terrorists and drug cartels, and how the war on drugs is really just a Progressive legacy in the first place

-show you've thought it through by adding that legal permissiveness about drug use ought to be coupled with cultural restrictiveness, a combination that works a lot better than its inverse

Brian writes:

There were a number of interesting responses to my comment. They deserve further response.

David:

I'm not familiar with your Hayek reference to indeterminability. It doesn't sound right to me. It's always possible to analyze and estimate the effects of policy changes. Marijuana policy is no different. If nothing else, one can allow smaller-scale experiments in legalization, such as at the state level, to see what effect it has. The notion that policy effects cannot be anticipated, as a general principle, would dismiss many fields of scholarly activity.

With regard to natural gas, of course the government would legalize it--if the benefits were clear. We use dangerous things all the time. We just make sure they're appropriately regulated.

KevinC:

Yes, legality should be presumptive, but it cannot be when something has already been illegal for a long time. This is a simple application of the Nash equilibrium. Rational players don't change strategies unless they can do better (i.e., an equilibrium occurs when no player can do better). A rational government wouldn't change its equilibrium strategy unless the change is likely to be for the better.

Noah Yetter:

Regarding driving, LOL. Yeah, you go with that one. I suppose driving would be safer if everyone drove at 25 mph.

Regarding preferences, sure, people like to do whatever they please. But so does government, and with regard to legalization, IT'S THE GOVERNMENT'S PREFERENCE THAT MATTERS. If the government wants us to work harder and produce more, they will institute policies that promote that. Moreover, even with regard to individual preferences, what people actually do is not always aligned with their ultimate preferences. We often do things that we admit are wrong or undesirable, but can't help ourselves. It's called giving in to temptation. People are not always better off "when they get what they want."

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