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University of Basel

Marijuana and happiness research.

Text: David Hermann

Users of medical cannabis in the USA experience greater mental well-being if access to it is liberalized. This finding from happiness research by Basel based economist Alois Stutzer could also have important implications for Switzerland.

Marijuana plant
(Image: Photolona/Shutterstock)

As smokers will know, tobacco consumption has been subject to increasingly strict regulation in recent years. Smoking is now prohibited in offi ces, in restaurants, and more often also in public places such as train stations. Tobacco advertising has been banned almost entirely, and the age limit for buying tobacco has been raised. With these measures, the state is seeking to protect its citizens from the adverse eff ects of smoking. After all, many people struggle to stick to their healthy lifestyle plans in the long term, and so it might be benefi cial for everyone if the state intervenes through regulation, such as by tightening up the prohibition of tobacco. At the same time, however, a growing number of authorities are relaxing the laws on cannabis.

In the USA alone, almost two thirds of states have made it easier to access cannabis, and its medical users are protected from prosecution. Nine states have gone as far as to legalize the consumption of cannabis altogether. Similarly, this summer, Switzerland’s National Council and Council of States adopted what is known as the “experimental article”. The revised federal act regulating the use of hemp is intended to clear the way for scientifi c studies into the eff ects of cannabis consumption for medical purposes.

Well-being and welfare

Analyses of this topic generally focus on the parameter of consumption, which the WHO also sees as a key indicator of the eff ects of greater liberalization. If consumption falls, the change is an unmitigated success; if it rises, it is a fl op. “We weren’t satisfi ed with this answer,” says Alois Stutzer, Professor of Political Economy at the University of Basel’s Faculty of Business and Economics and director of the Center for Research in Economics and Well-Being. Stutzer is interested in the eff ects of altered structural conditions on individual well-being and therefore also on general welfare. “The consumption fi gures aren’t suitable for this. Just because a person consumes more of something doesn’t mean they are happier, and certainly not if they’re taking hard drugs,” he explains. “A policy that reduces smoking is not a successful policy per se if people are smoking for pleasure.”

The professor says that happiness research – and specifically happiness economics – provides useful answers to this question. This relatively young discipline combines economic concepts and theories with insights drawn from sociology, psychology and  medicine. For happiness economics, welfare is indicated not only by growth in GDP and productivity, but also by high reported life satisfaction and high individual well-being.

Liberalization has a positive influence

In an empirical research project, Stutzer has teamed up with Jörg Kalbfuss and Reto Odermatt to fi nd out how the legalization of medical marijuana aff ects people’s net well-being in the USA. Although nothing has been published yet, the economist says that the initial results are promising, with extensive calculations and confi rmation tests demonstrating “a clear relationship between liberalization and mental well-being”.

A total of 31 US states have relaxed their laws on cannabis in the last 15 years. This provides an almost perfect testing ground for empirical analysis: If one state relaxes its laws and another does not, the two states nevertheless share similar economic, social and political frameworks. Any variations that occur after the change in the law can, in all likelihood, be attributed to the loosening of prohibition. In a more centralized country than the USA, however, eff ects of this kind are diffi cult to isolate.

The study is based on data from two regular surveys of the US population. One provides information on behavioral risks, such as those relating to driving, sports or obesity. Stutzer and his colleagues are primarily interested in mental health – for example, in the number of days per month for which respondents experience negative feelings such as stress or depression. Parameters of this kind are taken as an indicator of subjective well-being. The other database is the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which provides information about the individual reasons for cannabis consumption.

“Not a free pass for legalization”

Stutzer’s studies show that people who consume marijuana for medical reasons enjoy better mental health in states with relaxed regulations. They can now purchase cannabis products legally in a stressfree manner at specifi c sales outlets or grow a few plants legally themselves. Even people who smoke cannabis recreationally are no worse off than before liberalization. “However, these results are not a free pass for the complete legalization of cannabis,” says Stutzer. “In our view, that would be an inappropriate extrapolation of our fi ndings.” After all, many of what he sees as the key questions in this context remain unanswered – such as how to deal with highly potent cannabis products, the approval of advertising, or age restrictions for children and young people.

In the course of their analyses, Stutzer and his team stumbled across an interesting secondary result. Faced with a widespread opiate crisis, the US is currently tightening up access to these drugs. Patients therefore seek out a replacement and consume more alcohol and hard drugs instead – with enormous resulting costs. There is, however, an easy way to avoid this: As Stutzer explains, tighter access to prescription drugs as pursued in mandatory monitoring programs is far more eff ective if it is accompanied by easier access to cannabis products.

Stutzer’s analyses are also relevant to Switzerland, which – like the USA – has a highly federal structure. For this reason, the Basel economist also supports the “experimental article”, which would allow the first scientific trials to get underway in Switzerland. “Federalism is very useful in this respect,” says Stutzer. “Switzerland off ers the ideal framework for testing the impact of a liberal approach to cannabis in a real-world laboratory.” However, it will probably be some time before he can replicate the studies conducted in the USA here in Switzerland.

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