Two leading experts on marijuana legalization squared off Thursday on the implications, merits and economic effects of legalizing the substance in a debate hosted by the Janus Political Union Debates, a sub-group of the Janus Forum.
Alex Friedland ’15, fellows director of the Janus Forum, moderated the debate and began by asking the two speakers to present 15-minute opening remarks.
Aaron Houston, executive director of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy and decade-long proponent of marijuana legalization, said illegality has created a stigma around marijuana use. He said the majority of marijuana users in the United States are “silenced,” but the country is now at a “tipping point” for discussion about legalization.
Houston repeatedly said young people are being “locked in cages” for marijuana possession, an aspect of the criminal system that needs reform.
Houston also cited the benefits of being able to regulate the market for marijuana if the substance were legalized, adding that the underground market is currently largely controlled by drug cartels.
“We can tax it, regulate it and control it, like alcohol, and take profits away from those people,” Houston said.
Kevin Sabet, former senior adviser to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and Houston’s opponent in the debate, agreed that the criminal processing of marijuana possession needed improvement, but said legalization is “a step too far.”
Though “controlling something in the black market on its face sounds appealing,” the feasibility of this would be “a lot more complicated and scary,” Sabet said. If marijuana were legal, it would become cheaper and therefore easier to obtain, especially for young people, he said. Because marijuana is much easier for vendors to grow than alcohol or tobacco, these dealers could more easily avoid paying taxes on the substance, he said.
Sabet also emphasized the capitalization and advertising market that would stem from marijuana’s legalization. He compared the potential marijuana advertising industry to that of tobacco in the 1980s, when companies’ advertising campaigns directly targeted youths. He added that there are “eight times as many liquor outlets in poorer communities of color,” and these groups would be targeted as well.
Friedland asked Houston to discuss health concerns, pointing to studies that link prolonged marijuana use from a young age to lower IQs and schizophrenia.
Houston said alcohol and tobacco were much more dangerous than marijuana and questioned the validity of marijuana’s connection to schizophrenia.
“The (Drug Enforcement Administration) said in 1989 that marijuana is one of the therapeutically safest substances known to mankind,” Houston said.
Thirty minutes were allotted at the end of the debate for questions from the approximately 30-person audience. Audience member Benjamin Koatz ’16 asked Sabet why he thought a black market for marijuana would be less harmful than a legalized, regulated market.
Sabet responded that if marijuana were legalized, the black market would exclusively target young people. He added that “when a drug is normalized,” it is more difficult to conduct education and prevention programs.
Audience members posed questions to both speakers about how personal liberty fit into the discussion around marijuana legalization.
Houston said the continued war against marijuana use has been an “assault” on personal liberty. He reiterated that many young people are arrested and — in rare cases — charged with felonies for small possessions.
Sabet emphasized that “when your behavior affects other people,” the drug is no longer safe, citing a statistic that confirms driving under the influence of marijuana is the second highest cause of car-related accidents in the United States, after incidents caused by driving under the influence of alcohol.
Sabet said the vast majority of marijuana users are not arrested, and less than 0.1 percent of inmates are in state prison for smoking marijuana. Because the use of marijuana may affect other people, not legalizing the drug does not infringe on personal liberty, he said.
Maya Manning ’14, an audience member, said she supported legalizing marijuana use before attending the debate, but after listening she is now the “closest” she has been to “swinging the other way.”
“The psychological aspect of doing something that is illegal concerned me initially, so I supported legalization,” Manning said. “But the idea of capitalism and advertising taking a hold of this is horrifying.”