Why is a Harvard University economics professor proclaiming “marijuana should be legalized for just about everything”? Does he see prices for medical marijuana sliding down due to increased competition from private companies? We decided to find out by interviewing Dr. Jeffrey Miron, senior lecturer and the Director of Undergraduate Studies in Economics at Harvard University, as well as a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, the nation’s leading libertarian think-tank.
As an unabashed and outspoken champion of individual liberty, Dr. Miron has stirred the pot by publicly advocating for the legalization of all drugs, a move he says would save tens of billions of dollars annually for federal, state and local governments. We recently spoke with Dr. Miron about the future of medical marijuana, the economics of newly minted canna-businesses and the Obama’s administration approach to the war on drugs.
MediRevew: You have written that “just as the harms of alcohol prohibition were worse than the harms of alcohol itself, the adverse effects of marijuana prohibition are worse than the unwanted consequences of marijuana use,” and that legalization is the better policy. What’s the biggest obstacle to legalization?
Miron: I think the big obstacle to legalization is the entrenched interests of people whose job it is to continue prohibiting marijuana, whether that’s local vice squads, federal agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Drug Czar’s office or the White House. And there are some entrenched interests that people don’t always think about.
One example is the treatment sector. A lot of people are coerced into getting drug abuse treatment because they’re, say, caught in a routine traffic stop with marijuana in their car, and they’re able to get that arrest to go away if they go through some court-ordered treatment. But they’re not people who need drug abuse treatment, so there’s a lot of extra demand created for the treatment sector. So this sector also has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.”
MediReview: Given President Obama’s campaign promise of a hands-off approach to medical marijuana and the Justice Department’s Ogden Memo (directing federal resources only against medical marijuana providers who violate state law), what do you make of the Obama administration’s crackdown on medical marijuana?
Miron: I think that the administration, first of all, focuses on the electoral consequences. I don’t think they’ve seen it so far as in their interest to be soft on medical marijuana, or on any drugs. It seemed that way at the beginning, but that changed rather quickly. [The administration] knows that it would give the Republicans an issue if it came down strongly in favor of medical marijuana, or supported the recreational legalizations in Colorado and Washington. And so I think they just don’t want to go there. They want to let public opinion shift so much on its own. They’re sort of going along with public opinion, not trying to make public opinion.
MediReview: Public opinion is generally very much in favor of medical marijuana, and according to polls, a majority of Americans now even support recreational legalization. Do you feel that full legalization is inevitable?
Miron: Well, I hope that’s right, but I’m not positive that’s right. Pendulums can swing one way, and then sometimes the other way. There are certainly examples where public opinion has gone in one direction and then the other on lots of public policy issues, including drugs. So I don’t think we should assume it’s inevitable.
I think it’s plausible that marijuana will continue to move in the direction of medicalization and legalization. But if you’re sitting in Washington and you have the White House drug czar’s office right down the hall from you, and you have the DEA right there, and you have some Congressmen who are still screaming for prohibition, I think it’s pretty hard. And the federal government can interfere quite a bit with the decisions by states to try to medicalize and legalize.
The other reason why I don’t think we should assume [legalization] is inevitable is that very few major party politicians, on both sides of the aisle, are totally comfortable with the idea of letting states do what they want. The existing major parties don’t want to let states deviate from federal policy. Any federal politician who endorses letting states deviate is in trouble.
MediReview: If legalization does occur, do you foresee Big Pharma cornering the market on medical marijuana in the same way Big Agriculture dominates farming?
Miron: I’m not sure I would use the word ‘cornered.’ I think that in a fully legal market, we would likely see a substantial share of [marijuana] that was produced and sold by a relatively small number of companies, as we do with cars or beer or tobacco. But as long as the regulation of that industry is moderate at most, there will still be ample room for smaller firms to succeed. We see competition in the beer industry from overseas. We see lots of microbreweries.
[But] if you have a lot of regulation, then you’re going to limit the ability of the small producer to survive in the marketplace. An excellent example of that is the tobacco industry. It’s so costly, and there are all sorts of lawsuits and so many restrictions on advertising that it’s very hard for any newcomer to get into the tobacco industry in a profitable way, and so the big companies do rule that industry. But I don’t think we should be that concerned if a lot of the medical marijuana market is taken over by a relatively small number of companies… That’s just the way markets seem to work. And as long as there’s not too much regulation there will still be plenty of competition.
MediReview: Is this good for consumers? Do you see market forces and increased competition driving prices down?
Miron: I personally don’t think that prices are going to change dramatically. I wouldn’t be shocked if they went down by noticeable amounts, maybe 25 percent, perhaps even 50 percent, but I suspect that they won’t go down much at all. There are two reasons why.
One, I don’t think that current marijuana prohibition in the US is actually all that strong. I think that the amount of money that’s being spent trying to raise the price of marijuana relative to the size of the market is pretty miniscule. Therefore, they’re not having much effect in raising the cost.
Second, if you look at data and compare [marijuana] prices in the US to places where it’s almost entirely legal… they’re not that different. If you look at places like California where it’s very close to being legalized, prices aren’t that different from other places in the country. So I think that prices may go down, but they’re not going to go down a ton.
MediReview: Three years ago, you said that we can’t be sure if marijuana is effective medicine because DEA rules make it virtually impossible to carry out proper scientific trials. Consistent with its Schedule I classification, the federal government continues to emphatically insist marijuana has no accepted medical use. Do you think this is an accurate assessment?
Miron: The federal government continues to insist that smoked marijuana has no non-medical benefits, and in particular has no superior benefits compared to synthetic products or derivative products made from marijuana, such as Marinol… There certainly are legitimate studies and accepted evidence that some products like Marinol may be effective.
MediReview: You once said that the anecdotal evidence of medical marijuana’s effectiveness was “stunning.” Can you give examples?
Miron: Qualitatively, there are people who were resistant to the idea of using medical marijuana, but they were suffering from a serious condition… for which marijuana was widely thought to be useful and efficacious. And finally they were convinced by relatives or friends to try it and they did and then saw dramatic improvement.
But unfortunately, those people then became nervous that somehow it was still wrong to use marijuana or they were worried that they were putting their grandchildren in jeopardy by having them score marijuana for them at their local high school, and so they stopped, and when they did, their symptoms got worse again. So is that a perfectly controlled experiment? No. But is it a quasi-controlled experiment? Is that a little bit like an experiment? Yes, because you have a before, during and after. So that’s what I mean by anecdotal evidence, and it’s very suggestive.
MediReview: You also once said that the medical marijuana approach to legalization seems “sneaky.” What did you mean by that?
Miron: I do think has a real problem in that the way it’s implemented in many states looks like it’s just backdoor legalization. Many doctors seem to write [recommendations] without much compunction… and so that gives critics some basis in fact to say, “This is not just about helping sick people, this is about recreational use, and medicalization is helping to allow recreational use.”
Now, I have no objection to recreational use. I think [marijuana] should be legal for absolutely everything… And medicalization certainly has some benefits, because it means more people are able to purchase marijuana without the risk of going to jail, but it also has its unfortunate side effects of looking hypocritical, of looking like not telling the truth.