“Studies Show”: Marijuana Legalization and Opioid Deaths

In his NY Times column today, Ross Douthat argues that legalizing marijuana is a big mistake. Douthat makes a number of arguments, but let me focus on one point he makes in the column: that recent research suggests legalizing marijuana increases opioid deaths. This point is made in just one sentence of the essay, so let me quote it in full:

There was hope, and some early evidence, that legal pot might substitute for opioid use, but some of the more recent data cuts the other way: A new paper published in the Journal of Health Economics finds that “legal medical marijuana, particularly when available through retail dispensaries, is associated with higher opioid mortality.”

Kudos to Mr. Douthat for actually linking to the paper. That’s what the internet is for! Yet so many writers in traditional news sources fail to do this.

Now, on to the paper itself. There is nothing untrue in what Douthat writes. First, there was plenty of “early evidence” that legalizing marijuana reduced opioid deaths. More on this in a moment. And the study he cites by Mathur and Ruhm is particularly well done. It is published in the top health economics journal. But the main point of the paper is to say “we think the rest of the literature is wrong, and we’re going to try really hard to convince you that we are right.”

What does the rest of this literature say? Here’s a brief tour (all of these are cited in Mathur and Ruhm). The variable in question is opioid deaths.

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Doobies over Butts: More Americans Now Smoke Marijuana Than Cigarettes

Gallup has polled Americans for many decades about their smoking habits. About 40-45% of adults smoked cigarettes from about 1945-1975, but the percentage has dropped steadily since then. A 2022 poll showed a new low of 11% being smokers. Roughly three in 10 nonsmokers say they used to smoke.

On the other hand, marijuana usage has climbed steadily since Gallup first asked about it in 1969. Some 16% of Americans say they currently smoke marijuana, while a total of 48% say they have tried it at some point in their lifetime:

Younger adults (18-34) are much more likely to be current users, but the 55+ crowd tried it nearly as much (44%) as the younger cohorts:

Among all adults, opinion is about evenly split on whether marijuana has a positive or negative effect on society and on people who use it. However, opinion is skewed very positive among those who have actually tried it, and negative among those who have not:

(I can’t resist inserting a consistent anecdotal observation by reliable people I know or know of, that habitual smoking of MJ tends to be highly correlated with passivity / lack of initiative, especially among young men. When one young man I know of told his counselor, “Nothing happens [when I smoke weed]”, the response was, “That’s the problem, nothing happens [because with weed you just chill and don’t do the stuff you need to do].” Of course, correlation says nothing about the direction of causation here).

The big gorilla of substance usage is still alcohol. About 45% of Americans have had an alcoholic drink within the past week, while another 23% say they use it occasionally. Alcohol use has remained relatively constant over the years. The average percentage of Americans who have said they are drinkers since 1939 is 63%, which is close to Gallup’s most recent reading of 67%.

What Was a “Normal Person” 50 Years Ago?

If you spend much time on Twitter, you may have seen the following cartoon or something like it:

The implication here is that many of the social beliefs we hold today are very different from what people held 50 years ago, and (possibly, therefore) it’s not radical to still hold those beliefs today. The Tweet above doesn’t specify exactly what those beliefs are, but we can use survey data to dig into what those might be. Thankfully, one of the greatest social surveys out there was first conducted in 1972, exactly 50 years ago: the General Social Survey.

What exactly did a normal person believe around 1972, according to the GSS?

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