I teach Ethics Fall and Spring semester and I always get a minimum of two students who want to write on legalizing pot. At this point, I have a ready-made spiel: “whether pot should be legal or not is a legal issue. You need to change your topic so it is a moral issue.” Not surprisingly, I usually end up with papers arguing that pot should be legalized, with the word “moral” typed in here and there, often seemingly at random.
While I dread reading yet another paper on legalizing pot, I do find the moral issue rather interesting and hope that someday I will see an original an innovative paper on the subject. But, for now, I’ll just write a bit about it myself.
One stock argument for legalizing pot is that doing so makes financial sense. To be specific, legal pot could be regulated and taxed like other legal drugs, thus generating income for the state. Also, legalization of pot would also significantly cut down on the costs of enforcing existing laws regarding its use and sale. While correctly estimating the savings and profits of legalization is a rather challenging endeavor the Cato Institute recently claimed that legalizing pot would save us $8.7 billion. If this is true, then it would make good sense to legalize it. While that is small money in the context of Washington’s spending, it is still a significant amount that could be used, for example, to provide scholarships or put a tiny dent in the massive deficit. As such, there would seem to be a utilitarian case for why we should legalize pot.
Another stock argument is that legalizing pot will reduced crime. Obviously it would by its very nature. Since pot would be legal, activities that were once criminal would no longer be so, thus there would be less crime. Of course, it is also argued that other crimes that are related to pot, such as drug violence, would be reduced. It has also been claimed that legalized pot would weaken the various drug organizations, such as those doing so much damage in Mexico.
This has some appeal. After all, pot seems to be a major money maker for many drug organizations and legalizing pot would either remove them from this economy or push them towards going legitimate. Of course, it might also merely lead them to change their product line. As others have pointed out, the criminal organizations that flourished under prohibition did not wither away when alcohol was legal again. Instead, they simply expanded their other criminal ventures. I think it is safe to assume that the drug organizations that deal in pot will be resourceful enough to branch out to providing other drugs or engaging in other profitable crimes. This is not to say that legalizing pot would have no impact, it probably would. After all, while the drug organizations will be able to continue to sell drugs that are still illegal, the legalization of pot would most likely not expand the market for these other drugs. As such, the drugs folks would have to expand their drug sales by cutting into the sales of their rivals, most likely leading to violent conflict. Another option is for the drug folks to expand into other areas of crime, thus leading to an increase in other crimes. However, the overall result would be a reduction in crime and this might well be worth legalizing pot.