October 16, 2014 at 12:02 PM
States with medical marijuana laws saw decreases in suicide rates, particularly among young men, as well as a drop in drunken driving, also among young men, a University of Oregon economics professor told Portland business leaders Thursday.
Economist Ben Hansen discussed the potential implications for Oregon if voters approve legal recreational marijuana in the November election. Hansen, whose work focuses on the economics of risky behavior, spoke at the Oregon Economic Forum, sponsored by the University of Oregon and held at the Portland Art Museum.
Hansen offered a largely positive take on legalization, saying medical marijuana states on average did not see spikes in crime and or teen pot use. He said research suggests some people in medical marijuana states substitute pot for riskier substances like alcohol and that choice may be a factor in declines in drunken driving and suicide.
Researchers looked at the first five years after medical marijuana was introduced in 17 states and found an average 5 percent drop in suicide rates. Among men 20 to 29 years old, rates fell by an average of 11 percent.
On teen use, Hansen said four different studies drew similar conclusions: youth consumption generally did not climb in states with medical marijuana laws.
“If anything, there was a decrease,” he said.
Hansen, in his own work, researched traffic fatalities in Oregon and 16 other states with medical marijuana laws and found an average 8 percent drop within the first five years of the laws’ implementation. The number of drunken driving fatalities dropped by 13 to 15 percent. The decreases were largest among young men, he said.
He offered a couple of possible factors driving the data: Federal studies found that while stoned and drunken drivers are physically impaired and make poor decisions, stoned drivers tend to be risk-averse, generally driving slower and leaving more distance between their cars and others. Drunken drivers, meanwhile, tend to take more risks behind the wheel. (Hansen made clear he does not condone either.)
Another possibility: People who smoke pot tend to consume it in private homes, “whereas people consume alcohol in bars,” said Hansen.
“It could be that we are taking people off the roads who would be dangerous drivers,” Hansen said, who added he was “a little bit surprised” by the findings.
Hansen’s research found that states with medical marijuana laws also saw declines in heavy drinking and a 5 percent decline overall in beer sales. He noted that revenue from legal marijuana sales might be offset by declines in alcohol revenue.
Hansen addressed the potential tax revenue for Oregon and the challenge of setting a price for legal marijuana that keeps it competitive with a robust black market and the state’s medical marijuana industry. One study financed by legalization advocates estimated that Oregon could take in $38 million in the first year of legal recreational sales, a figure Hansen called optimistic.
Ultimately, said Hansen, legalizing marijuana saves society the expense of jailing offenders. Under legalization, it’s the pot consumers who pay the government with every purchase. Think of it, he said, as a way of “instituting fines on a really large scale and calling them taxes.”
And in case you’re wondering, Hansen isn’t, as he put it, a “pot head professor.” He’s Mormon, he said.
“I don’t have a stake in the matter as far as alcohol vs. marijuana,” he said after his talk concluded. “Both of those are things that my wife would get mad at me if I touched either.”
— Noelle Crombie