How to make an experiment fail: “Regulate the lights out of it”

Alexandre Padilla Associate Professor of Economics, Metropolitan State University of Denver
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Governor John Hickenlooper wasn’t on board when it came to legalizing marijuana and Amendment 64 was on the table. Unfortunately, now that it’s passed, he’s still not on board. Now that the sale of recreational marijuana is legal, Gov. Hickenlooper wants to “regulate the lights out of it” because he thinks that marijuana is bad for you and he doesn’t want kids to smoke.

Even if we ignore the fact that there is no evidence to support the idea that legalizing marijuana consumption will lead to more consumption of marijuana among teenagers, the best course of action to increase marijuana consumption among teenagers and push consumers toward the black market is to add regulations.

We just have to look at alcohol and teenage binge drinking statistics to see how well the government fares in its heavy regulation of a legal substance when it comes to detering consumption of that substance among teenagers. Similarly, we can look at statistics for teenage cigarette smoking as another source of evidence showing how effective the government’s heavy hand is in preventing teenagers from accessing controlled substances.

Even if statistics show that there is a decrease in alcohol and tobacco consumption among teenagers, it’s clearly not due to the government’s effectiveness in preventing teenagers from accessing these controlled substances. More importantly, data seem to show that marijuana consumption among teenagers actually has increased where marijuana is banned whether at the local level or at the state level.

The problem with government controlling the production, distribution, and consumption of certain substances — whether through total prohibition or heavy regulation — is not whether the intentions are good or bad. Rather, not only are the unintended consequences usually bad but they also tend to be far worse than the problem itself.

Alcohol and drug prohibitions have had disastrous unintended consequences, with increases in substance abuse problems, crime rates related to drug dealing, and disparate impacts on minorities in terms of enforcement. Heavily regulating controlled substances is a step behind complete prohibition and it’s not difficult to see how the unintended consequences will make the problem worse and lead to the same problems we have observed with cigarettes, tobaccos, guns, and prescription drugs.

Governor Hickenlooper may well have good intentions but he should probably look at the track record of government’s regulation of controlled substances and their unintended consequences before he starts his own private war on marijuana.

Dr. Alexandre Padilla is an Associate Professor of Economics at Metropolitan State University of Denver and the Director of the Exploring Economic Freedom Project.