Legalizing Marijuana Does Not Mean the U.S. Would Lose Ground to China

High incarceration, not marijuana use, poses a great threat to American competitiveness. 
Colorado's legalization of marijuana, effective January 1st, has divided opinion in the U.S. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

The legalization of marijuana, effective New Year's Day in Colorado and Washington, has divided American journalists, who seemed to spend much of the last three days re-litigating the subject. On Thursday, The New York Times' David Brooks wrote a column disclosing his youthful use of the drug and why, as a result, he opposes legalizing marijuana, while the very same day Ruth Marcus wrote practically the same piece in The Washington Post. These two articles then triggered a pushback from writers like Slate's Dave Weigel and Reason's Matt Welch, who argued that Brooks and Marcus (among other legalization opponents) failed to consider the costs of prohibition.

But perhaps the strangest anti-legalization comment came from former Daily Beast editor Tina Brown, who tweeted:

Brown's tweet contains some questionable assumptions. One, that legalized marijuana will worsen America's obesity problem and make the country stupider and sleepier, presumably because high people tend to get the munchies, act like idiots, and fall asleep on the sofa. And two, the United States will lose ground to China, which has no plans to adjust its strict prohibition of marijuana.

Before going any further, it's worth considering: How many people in China smoke weed? Obtaining reliable statistics of illicit activity in China is difficult, but we can be reasonably sure it's less than in the United States. Americans smoke more pot, per capita, than all but two countries in the world, and, while a recent study from the medical journal Lancet doesn't discuss China specifically, it found that Asians consume less marijuana than people from any other continent. 

This, of course, hasn't always been so; in fact, drugs have played a central role in modern Chinese history. China fought two different "Opium Wars" against the British in the 19th century, after which a significant percentage of the Chinese population became addicted to the drug. When Chairman Mao Zedong assumed power in 1949 and formed the People's Republic of China, the newly empowered Communists shut down opium dens throughout the country, arrested smokers, and executed dealers. Within just a few years, China had completely eradicated opium use in the country.

Today, Chinese law has little tolerance for illegal drug use. As in Singapore and Malaysia, traffickers remain subject to the death penalty, and four years ago China marked the occasion of the UN International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking by publicly executing 24 convicted drug dealers. However, marijuana grows in the wild throughout the country's southwest, a fact I can confirm as a four-year resident of Yunnan Province. (At a wedding I attended in Xishuangbanna, a Yunnan prefecture located near the border with Laos, some foreign guests offered pot to locals only to be told that they preferred store-bought cigarettes.) In Beijing, dealers are a ubiquitous presence in bar districts despite periodic crackdowns by the police, and they sell more than just marijuana: The tranquilizer ketamine has become popular among China's urban youth, and police recently seized three tons of methamphetamine in a rural village. A Chinese journalist was even able to buy marijuana via an online forum.

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Matt Schiavenza is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is a former global-affairs writer for the International Business Times and Atlantic senior associate editor.

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