James Schneider  

How Will Legalizing Marijuana Impact Hard Drug Use?

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Recently Megan McArdle discussed whether legalizing pot would reduce hard drug use. Under marijuana prohibition, the buyer must enter an illegal drug market. The seller is likely to offer harder drugs for sale. By legalizing marijuana but keeping hard drugs illegal, the two markets become separated. Maybe marijuana users would be less likely to buy the harder stuff.

McArdle is not convinced:

I'm not sure how true this is -- most people I know who tried harder drugs got them from the friends they smoked pot with, not the guy who sold it to them. On the other hand, it's at least plausible ....

The only way to find out is to legalize and see what happens. Fortunately for the curious, two states are experimenting right now. We should have our answer in a few years.


While solid proof will take awhile, medical-marijuana laws may have provided some evidence already. Many states have laws that allow certain medical patients to purchase marijuana legally (currently 20 states and D.C. but more medical-marijuana states are probably on the way). These laws aren't ostensibly meant to allow people to obtain marijuana for recreational use, but it is generally believed that this happens anyway. Initial results from these states indicate that easier access to marijuana might decrease heroin use. Luke Chu's working paper finds that medical-marijuana laws lead to a decrease in arrests for cocaine and heroin possession (from 0 to 20 percent) and a 20 percent decrease in the number of people being treated for heroin (with no significant change in treatment rates for cocaine). The paper just received a revise and resubmit from the Journal of Law and Economics.


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CATEGORIES: Economics of Crime



COMMENTS (7 to date)
Andrew_FL writes:

Decreasing arrests is not necessarily the same thing as decreasing the incidence. So I find the treatment figures are more convincing, to me at least, although I would less strenuously raise a similar objection there.

My skepticism of the actual demonstration of the claim notwithstanding, it is actually a reasonable notion. And I'm not opposed to the idea of legalization in principle, so I don't want to leave the wrong impression on that score.

Sadly, the real truth is that the sudden drive for legalization has nothing to do with such sober analysis of data. It's all a mad drive for tax revenue

Peter writes:

The question itself suggests pot and hard drugs are substitute goods and they are not. I would actually suggest alcohol is a closer substitute for hard drugs while pot competes with prescription downers and pain relievers.

Jacob A. Geller writes:

Here are the relevant graphs for heroin treatment in MJ states vs. non-MJ states: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/BiBpsMqCcAAya5G.jpg:large

...excluding California and Colorado. I don't know, I'm inclined to agree with Andrew_FL on this one -- interesting but econometricaly dubious, interpretation is difficult, and not strictly necessary in order to justify a strong opinion on the matter of legalization.

Keith K. writes:

I believe the CATO institute addressed this somewhat in their paper analyzing the effects on Portugal totally decriminalizing all drug use over 10 years ago.

If I remember correctly the incidence of marijuana use went up and hard drug use plummeted. Granted this is a very different situation from what we have here with legalization, but it is worth exploring.

Andrew writes:

"most people I know who tried harder drugs got them from the friends they smoked pot with, not the guy who sold it to them"

It would be harder to get the harder drugs from those friends, because their source for pot wouldn't provide harder drugs? What I am missing in her argument?

James Schneider writes:

@Andrew I agree with you. If a few people were prevented from using heroin, then fewer users could initiate new users. The benefits might grow over time. I would have elaborated on this theme, but I didn't want to speculate too much based on a working paper that wasn't finished with the peer review process yet.

Eric writes:

I think @Peter is more right when he says that prescription drugs are more of a substitute for pot than hard drugs.... This is true even in places like India where pot is usually cheap less then a dolloar for 100gms and is believed to be a sort of sacrament (prasad) used by the god Shiva. It is true though that many marijuana user's end up trying prescription drugs but this is probably because of pot's illegal status and the readiness of pharmacist in India to sell p. drugs(N10, Spasmo) without the prescription, this is what happening in the east, so it would be quite useful to have a look at the incidence of these drugs in the west also.

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