Scott Sumner  


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Tyler Cowen linked to a Wonkblog post that suggested pot legalization has not had the negative effects that drug warriors predicted:

National surveys have shown that teen marijuana use rates are falling across the country. But there haven't been many numbers available specifically for states such as Colorado and Washington where it is legal. Federal data released late last year showed that teen use rates in Colorado and Washington were essentially flat, but they covered only 2014, the first year commercial marijuana was available in those states.

The latest data from Colorado includes 2015, reflecting two full years of the legal marijuana market's effect. These numbers give the strongest indication yet that fears of skyrocketing adolescent use have not materialized.

Here are some of the groups opposed to pot legalization:

Among the groups opposing marijuana legalization in the state are the California Hospital Association and the California Correctional Supervisor's Association. The state's report on the measure's fiscal impact on state and local government shows it could save "tens of millions of dollars to potentially exceeding $100 million annually" due to savings in the courts, police and corrections.
Of course, saving money on corrections means a loss of income to corrections officers. On the other hand there are lots of people with no direct financial stake in the war on drugs, who nonetheless favor keeping pot illegal. The question is why? And does the fact that pot legalization seems to have worked in Colorado lead these people to change their minds?

After all, the proponents of the drug war admitted that the costs were high; lots of people get imprisoned, families are split, there's a huge financial cost, it tends to increase corruption in police departments, entire Latin American nations become torn apart. I think everyone agrees that these are large costs. But the drug warriors say the costs associated with pot legalization are even worse. OK, so why aren't those massive costs showing up in Colorado?

Let's change the subject a bit, and consider three policy choices:

1. The 2003 Iraq War (or Vietnam, if you prefer).
2. The prohibition on pot.
3. The prohibition on the sale of kidneys.

I'd like to suggest that the first case is different from the last two, in one important respect. After the Iraq War, there was a fairly general sense that the war had been a mistake. There was a sense of remorse over a needless cost of 1000s of American lives, and even more Iraqis.

I'm going to predict that if and when pot and kidney sales are legalized, and widely accepted to be the right policy, there will be no similar sense of remorse. Supporters of the war on drugs will not feel a sense of remorse that 1000s were imprisoned for no good reason. If that sense of remorse were going to show up, I'd already expect it to be in evidence by now. Society tends to feel bad when DNA evidence shows that an innocent person was imprisoned. But society seems just fine with imprisoning people in many states, for activities that are perfectly legal in a growing number of states. (By yearend, that may include many more, including California.)

If kidney sales are legalized, many 1000s of lives will be saved each year. These will be people who now die due to the influence of lobbies such as the AMA. If kidney sales are later legalized, and the policy is seen as working, will the AMA feel a sense of remorse? I doubt it, but I'm not sure why.

In the comment section I'm looking for how others see these issues. Not in the sense of whether legalizing drugs or kidney sales are good ideas, but rather how society will react if they are eventually shown to be good ideas. Will there be remorse?

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COMMENTS (21 to date)
bill writes:

I doubt there will be remorse. People will at best admit they were mistaken. Many won't even do that. We still have dry counties.

Andrew Clough writes:

Maybe the example of a hypothetical past ban on vaccination would let people look at the issue without entangling people's feelings about current political issues? There were a lot of people back in the day who were against vaccination on moral grounds so it's not an unreasonable counterfactual that there might have been a ban, leading to the loss of a large number of lives which people could later feel guilty over or not.

Nathan Taylor writes:

People's instinctive morality is not consequentialism. Folk morality is about intent. Perhaps evolved to discern in group/out group. Who intends my group harm. Who intends my group help. Who is a traitor. Morality of intent is highly sensitive, highly evolved.

Thus remorse is when you find out you harmed your own team. But this only goes so far. If you yourself did not intend harm, then as long as it's plausibly rationalized, it will be. And if the harm is done indirectly, by remote leaders or politicians, you can claim remorse since you meant well but leaders let you down.

A more common way out is we misremember as well. So in Feb 2003, 63% of Americans favored Iraq war. In May 2015, when asked if they supported Iraq war, 38% said they did. That is, we regret that others supported the war, where in fact we personally never did. Likewise, most will not regret being against drug war, as they will not remember being against anyway (certainly easier to misremember this than support of Iraq War).

Source on war support

Danny Kahn writes:

I agree that there will probably not be remorse about drug legalization and kidney sales. The reason might have to do with status quo bias. There has always been a prohibition on drugs and kidney sales which most people just reflexively accepted. The law was simply being enforced. Other legal regimes for these activities may never have even been considered. A war of choice that turns into a fiasco is something different. That was an active choice and departure from the status quo that seems to have induced considerably more shame in many of its erstwhile advocates.

Doug writes:

As long as there's still prohibition of heroin, I doubt prohibition of cannabis will be viewed as a moral failing. People mostly seem to be accepting marijuana legalization, because the substance is becoming socially normalized. The needle hasn't moved much on the philosophy of drug prohibition. Regardless of substance, it's an affront to personal liberty and a policy totally ignorant of economics.

I doubt we'll see recreational cocaine in our lifetime. As long as certain substances remain controlled, it's easy enough to understand why people in the past controlled other substances. Grandma was just an old fuddy-duddy who was misinformed by Reefer Madness.

Greg G writes:

There has not been remorse in Colorado and I don't expect there will be.

As pot is legalized in various places it is becoming more apparent to teenagers how many older people are doing it. Nothing could make it more uncool for teenagers than that.

John Alcorn writes:

Prof. Sumner,

Is it the case that "there was a sense of remorse over a needless cost of 1000s of American lives, and even more Iraqis"? The key decision-makers have not expressed remorse at the decision to wage war. People who came to regret that they initially supported the war then expressed dismay and anger at the decision-makers, but not remorse (a feeling of having been at fault themselves). They have felt dismay and anger because the decision was later shown to have been based on (a) inadequate evidence of WMDs and (b) murky, perhaps biased (motivated) reasoning about WMDs.

Remorse is especially unlikely to occur after legalization of marijuana or of a market for kidneys for transplantation. People tell themselves that these prohibitions prevent slippery slopes (to hard drugs or to open-ended commodification of human body parts). Evidence that legal marijuana use per se does not cause the sky to fall probably seems tangential to people worried about slippery slopes.

The social mechanisms for gateway drugs are perhaps too subtle for rationally-ignorant voters to sort out. The softest illegal drug is (statistically) a gateway to harder drugs, because a soft illegal drug is relatively accessible, and then the consumer of the soft illegal drug may more readily encounter hard drugs in the broad illegal setting. Were alcohol illegal and marijuana legal, then alcohol (and not marijuana) would be the gateway drug.

Scott Sumner writes:

Thanks everyone, Lots of good comments. I think intent is important to morality, and have blogged on that issue.

John, I do think there is a sense of remorse about both Vietnam and Iraq. If you see a vet who was wounded in one of those wars, you might feel a sense of pity, a life damaged for no good reason.

I wonder how people in Colorado feel about those who recently got out of prison for pot violations. Indeed are there some people still in prison, in Colorado, for selling pot? If so, why?

jj writes:

It's said that new scientific theories don't win out until the older generation of theorists dies. The same will happen here.

LD Bottorff writes:

People don't really worry about past support for obviously bad policies. I think that the US entry into WWI was more pointless than our invasion of Iraq. More lives lost in less time and the resulting turmoil lead to another, worse war. We have a lot of similar turmoil in the Mideast, and probably a lot more people are going to die, but it will be hard to beat the death toll of WWII. I understand that most of the people involved in that decision (to enter WWI) are dead, but we really should consider our history more carefully when we think about going to war.

Sean Leal writes:

I think future generations will look on the people living in these last few decades as a bunch of idiots.

I can imagine the conversation going something like, "I mean, they tried it once before. What made them think it would work 'this time?'"

Michael writes:

I thought at first I had hit it on the nose with this answer: When you correct a traditional policy, that is progress. It is something to celebrate. It would be profoundly maladaptive to lose ourselves in remorse every time we learn. Whereas in the wars, what happened was we lost. It was not a long-standing policy, it was a mistake that was seen to have been a mistake within a decade.

I still think that's not all wrong, but as I started jotting I recalled white Southerners who came to feel remorse for Jim Crow. That had also been a long-standing policy. So I think there is some room for it even in stories of learning and progress.

Henri Hein writes:

Nathan Taylor:

I agree with your overall point, but you have to be careful with those kinds of interval surveys. The problem is that the people they were asking in 2015 were not the same people they were asking in 2003. Especially on a site like, where respondents are self-selected, and there are likely to be a lot more of them, and be younger on average, than in 2003. This may seem like a nit, but I believe this kind of error in statistics -- not accounting for the fact that the stats are not about the same group of people -- clouds a lot of discourse in social issues discussions.

mm writes:

the wonkblog uses poor data as well as out of date:®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=5&pgtype=sectionfront&_r=1

bad data is worse than no data-- medical mj data is mostly garbage

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

People largely just move on. There are always another set of issues to argue over.

That happened with economic liberalisation in Australia.

Pietro Poggi-Corradini writes:

To paraphrase a famous quote: "supporting a policy choice is not about supporting a policy choice". It's mostly about status, loyalties, signalling etc...

Scott Sumner writes:

Again, lots of good points, I don't have much to add.

FWIW I agree that the US involvement in WWI turned out to be a disaster.

I'll throw out another hypothesis. I think many people accept the notion that pot legalization is inevitable, and even desirable. But they often don't agree with my view that this implies that those imprisoned for using or (more often) selling pot of unjustly deprived of their liberty.

Their thinking on this issue is compartmentalized.

Edogg writes:

Is there a good resource for the case that our (the US) entry into World War 1 helped cause World War 2? In a way that could be reasonably be taken into account beforehand? The argument seems to require knowing that balance of military forces would have led to a peaceful resolution as opposed to the war simply lasting longer. Could we have foreseen that allied victory would be just punitive enough to inflame German nationalism but not punitive enough to prevent Germany from rearming? And how does the United States not entering fix that?

The direct, reasonably expected consequences of US entry into World War 1 seem to be a quicker end to World War 1 and a large number of dead US soldiers.

I'm not disagreeing here with those who say the future is generally unforseeable and that war proponents failed to meet a proper burden of proof. But to say that the decision to enter World War 1 caused World War 2 seems very speculative.

Brian writes:

" But they often don't agree with my view that this implies that those imprisoned for using or (more often) selling pot of unjustly deprived of their liberty."

Although it's not a libertarian position (and therefore not found here much), many people would agree with this. People who used (or sold) illegal drugs acted as they did despite knowing that the action was illegal. They weren't required to violate the law--they chose to. Most people, then, would feel little or no sympathy for those who suffered the consequences of decisions they made with their eyes wide open. In a similar context, should anyone feel remorse over how Al Capone was treated, given that--in the end--alcohol ended up being legalized again?

The issue of organ transplants is potentially different, of course, and we might indeed hear many people express regret over how long it took to change that policy.

Mark Bahner writes:

This reminds me (I hope I don't have to explain why...because that would be difficult):

When Reason magazine interviewed Ken Burns and asked about marijuana, he was against legalization. That's even though he did a whole multi-hour special on Prohibition.


MoreFreedom writes:

Does one need the psychological satisfaction of the remorse of others or is it more important to have some liberalization of victimless crime laws going forward? I'll take the later any day.

My grandmother had remorse in voting in Social Security, and I'm with her.

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