Regulating the Risky and Risque

Created by Raymond March |

Last week, North Dakotans voted on a constitutional ballot measure (Measure 3) to legalize using, growing, and selling marijuana recreationally. It was soundly defeated.

There are a variety of reasons to personally abstain from using marijuana and many other potentially harmful goods or activities. Devising ways to regulate them is another matter and, unfortunately, it’s much harder than it appears.  

Some Measure 3 detractors cite people’s potential to use marijuana carelessly as a reason to keep it illegal. But the same can be said of countless other products that are legal. North Dakota is ranked second for DUIs per capita in the United States, clearly a careless way to consume alcohol. But few would consider this a reason to make alcoholic beverages illegal.

Others fear legalizing recreational marijuana use will harm communities. About a week before voting pools in North Dakota opened, I received a flyer in the mail urging me to vote no on Measure 3 because recreational marijuana is associated with elevated crime rates.

This association is highly suspect. But even if it is correct, it’s important to consider how many resources are devoted to deterring crimes which may not have ever happened.

Nearly half of all U.S. prison inmates are incarcerated for drug-related crimes. Most of these arrests are for marijuana possession. Could prison cells, courtrooms, attorneys, and police officer’s time be put to better use? If so, current regulation is at best speculative and likely detrimental to many communities.  

Perhaps an equally important question is how to manage products that are potentially harmful but also beneficial. North Dakota, among many other states, recognizes marijuana has powerful medicinal properties. But this is true of a variety of other drugs.

For example, ecstasy is likely to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat post-traumatic stress disorder in the next few years. Ecstasy is also classified as a schedule 1 drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration, deemed to have no known medicinal benefits and a high likelihood of abuse. How should policy reconcile these distinctions?

And when regulations are passed, how able are governments to enforce them? The U.S. spends approximately $50 billion annually to fight the “War on Drugs.” Many consider this near 50-year effort a failure.

Other, less ambitious efforts to regulate risky products have shown similarly little success for their efforts. Limiting access to fast food restaurants and taxing sodas have all failed to combat obesity. Taxing cigarettes does little to deter smoking. Efforts to deter opioid addiction have driven patients to seek illicit alternatives (including heroin).

Ultimately, there are no perfect solutions to the problems which come with regulating potentially dangerous goods. And this is what makes the problems of regulating food and vice both pressing and fascinating.

Next semester, I will be leading PCPE’s Mancur Olson Scholars in an ongoing discussion on the regulation of “unhealthy foods,” prostitution, alcohol, illicit drugs, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), gambling and pornography, among other subjects.

These products and services are taboo for a reason: they’re dangerous! Unfortunately, so is regulating them. So what can be done and who is best able to do it?

We will spend the semester trying to find out. 

Learn more

Students at NDSU interested in participating in this discussion can apply for the spring 2019 Mancur Olson Reading Group. The group, titled “Regulating Food and Vice,” will explore how food and vices are regulated in the U.S. 


 Meet the Author

Raymond March is a fellow at the Center for the Study of Public Choice and Private Enterprise (PCPE) and the Independent Institute. He is an assistant professor in the NDSU Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics. Read his bio. 

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