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.


But Tina Brown's tweet has less to do with marijuana than it does with a persistent belief that any sign of American "weakness" must necessarily translate into an advantage for China. In fairness, she's hardly the only person guilty of this: Three years ago, when heavy snow in Pennsylvania forced the cancellation of an NFL game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings, then-Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell objected in these terms:

We’ve become a nation of wusses. The Chinese are kicking our butt in everything. If this was in China, do you think the Chinese would have called off the game? People would have been marching down to the stadium, they would have walked and they would have been doing calculus on the way down.

And when in 2011 Amy Chua published her famous "tiger mom" essay in The Wall Street Journal, featuring a description of her draconian, cruel parenting technique, she touched a nerve with Americans who suddenly questioned whether their own parenting might be inadequate. Whether the subject is legalized marijuana, parenting, or canceled football games, the basic message is the same: Americans are fat, soft, and lazy, and the Chinese are lean, disciplined, and hard-working—and that's why they're gaining on us.

However, the focus on cultural issues obscures the point about China's competition with the United States: it's pure geopolitics. Three and a half decades of growth has given China an economy that, barring an unexpected collapse, will overtake the United States in GDP sometime in the next decade. China has parlayed this growth into greater economic, military, and diplomatic power, and now has the means to challenge American supremacy in the Western Pacific. This is where the Sino-American competition exists—not in the pot dispensaries of Colorado or the mountains of Yunnan.

If marijuana use correlated to national health, then the two countries with the highest per capita consumption of the drug—Australia and New Zealand—would not perennially rank near the top in human development indeces. But let's say for the sake of argument that Tina Brown is correct: Legalized marijuana will result in more people smoking more marijuana more often, and that this will have a negative effect on the country as a whole. Whether or not this argument is true, it completely misses the central argument in favor of legalization: The current system, in which people who buy, sell, and use marijuana are subject to imprisonment, poses a far greater cost to society than pot itself ever could. And the disproportional effect of our marijuana laws on minorities and the poor only makes this argument stronger.

As the American competition with China intensifies over the next years and decades, the United States will be forced to confront weaknesses such as income inequality, unemployment, student debt, and high imprisonment. Marijuana use just isn't one of them.