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The Myth of Social Costs Associated with Marijuana Legalization


One of the favorite lines prohibitionists like to use when opposing cannabis legalization is that there are massive and mysterious “social costs” that come with legalization. A new report from Colorado Christian University purports to show these costs, when in reality it does nothing of the sort.

Before we get to specifics, let me be clear about something: This new report claims that “[f]or every dollar gained in tax revenue, Coloradans spent approximately $4.50 to mitigate the effects of legalization.” I don’t care if that $4.50 was supposedly $450.00. Marijuana should be legal because the people who consume, buy, sell and grow it are not infringing on the rights of someone else. If, for the sake of argument, you feel like you are being forced to pay for the decisions of others, maybe you should take that up with the people forcing you to pay for things you don’t want to.

Unfortunately, this is a very long report and I don’t have the time or space to counter every point, so we’ll discuss the two primary points right now. According to a summary of the report, “[c]osts related to the healthcare system and from high school drop-outs are the largest cost contributors [to the social costs of legalization].” So, let’s look at what the report itself has to say about these two factors.

Starting on page 17 of the full report, the researchers attempt to show that people with “cannabis use disorder” are costing taxpayers in Colorado millions of dollars every year because of the cost of treating these people. They take the number of people who are registered medical marijuana patients in the state and add the number of people estimated to be recreational cannabis users; they then assume that a certain percentage of those people have a problem that needs treatment and multiply that number of people by the estimated costs of treatment.

“Costs for CUD were calculated using the percent of individuals likely to develop CUD in 2017 who were admitted into treatment, the type and cost of treatment, and the percentages receiving that type of treatment,” according to the report (page 21). But the “Cost of Cannabis Use Disorder Treatment” chart on that same page shows something interesting. For instance, in 2008, the “costs” were $34.6 million, well before recreational legalization was even voted on. In 2012, the costs were $35.9 million and by 2017 the costs had dropped to $31.4 million.

The report itself even admits that “[i]t is also important to understand that CUD costs are not new to legalization.” In fact, the costs have gone down since recreational legalization took effect, meaning if legalization had any effect on those supposed costs, it was a positive one.

So that’s the “costs related to the healthcare system”, but what about all those high school drop-outs caused by legalization and the drag they have on the economy? From page 28 of the report:

“While it is impossible to say how many people do not gain a post-secondary credential (whether for a four-year degree, a graduate degree, or other certificate) as a direct result of marijuana use, it is clear that people who do not fulfill their educational potential are likely to have lower incomes than they might have otherwise.”

In other words, marijuana supposedly causes some people not to try for a better education, meaning they make less money, meaning that money they hypothetically would have made is a “social cost” associated with legalization. Since it is “impossible to say” how many people this is, any monetary costs associated with those people is complete conjecture. But let’s say someone does fail to go to college directly due to marijuana use. So what? There is no way to know how much more money they would have made, or even if they wanted to make more money. It’s their life and it is no one else’s business. Someone you don’t know not going to college affects you in no way, and it costs you nothing.

This report is chocked full of conjecture and cherry-picked studies that are then used to try and calculate mythical costs that someone else supposedly has to pay. Someone smoking marijuana doesn’t cost you anything, and even if it did, the costs preceded legalization.

In fact, the case could be made that people eating fast food costs vastly more for the healthcare system than cannabis users. But, again, if you have to pay for someone else having a heart attack because they ate too many Big Macs, it is an issue you need to take up with your political representatives.