Writing Marijuana Law for Your Backyard

Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes yesterday, and Massachusetts voters approved an initiative eliminating civil and criminal penalties for the medicinal use of the drug.

Will these measures be a further move toward the localization of drug policy? Can the U.S. turn away from a national drug ban toward more local heterogeneity and control?

The drug-policy debates have typically been waged between stiff-necked, anti-drug warriors and die-hard libertarians. The anti-drug abolitionists point to the toll that drugs can take on the lives of users and their families. The libertarians argue that our legal drugs, especially alcohol, can also wreak tremendous harm and that the war on drugs appears to be both costly and at best moderately effective.

I have always wondered why there hasn’t been more support for a more localized, even Nimbyist, approach toward drug policy. The Nimbyist looks at drugs the same way he looks at real-estate development. He doesn’t think that drug use, especially the medical use of marijuana by adults, is any terrible thing. He doesn’t really care what others do in the privacy of their own homes. But he doesn’t want marijuana use in his backyard.

Why doesn’t the Nimbyist like the local sale or public consumption of marijuana? Perhaps he doesn’t like the smell. Perhaps he doesn’t want his children exposed to marijuana ads at the local drugstore. My hometown in Massachusetts dropped its 150-year tradition of banning the public sale of alcohol a few years ago. It now allows the local supermarket to sell wine, but not alcohol or beer. If beer is forbidden, surely my neighbors don’t want marijuana for sale.

The Nimbyist, or localist, approach to controlling marijuana recognizes that this isn’t some absolute moral issue, but rather an issue for local regulation. Some communities will embrace marijuana and attract dedicated smokers. Other communities will try to stay clean. That heterogeneity would seem to allow different rules for different Americans.

The big challenge facing localism is that moving marijuana within the U.S. is always going to be extremely easy. Indeed, a primary appeal of waging a national war on drugs is that it offers some chance of totally stopping supply. The experience of the past 30 years, however, suggests that the U.S. is no better at keeping drugs off our soil than it was making the U.S. cocktail-free in the 1920s.

Perhaps the state-level medical marijuana approach offers a tool for reducing this illicit trade within the U.S. We should be confident that there will be plenty of people using medical marijuana in Massachusetts without a really good medical reason, just as there were plenty of drinkers getting booze by prescription at the local drugstore during the 1920s. But the medical rules could limit the ability to export large amounts of marijuana across state lines.

There is a lot to be said for the American system of local control. It allows grass-roots innovation and plenty of variety. Maybe it’s a good thing that state governments are taking more control over their drug policies.

(Edward Glaeser, an economics professor at Harvard University, is a columnist for Bloomberg View.)

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