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The Economics of Law?

May 31, 2009

Amsterdam has Marijuana or Pot Bars, a popular attraction for part of the city's  tourist industry. This sign warns against smoking marijuana or drinking alcohol in the street.

Amsterdam has Marijuana or Pot Bars. This is an attraction for part of the city's tourist industry. This street sign warns against smoking pot or drinking alcohol in the street.

Many sociologists who specialize, in part, in the study of crime or “sociology of crime” have long since come to the conclusion that what is right or wrong varies from place to place and time to time. So does what is illegal or legal—in other words, what is considered a crime and what isn’t varies, too. One reason why some sociologists suggest this variance exists is that social institution reflect the general values and norms of society.

One example might be marijuana. In many states, the use or possession of this substance in large quantities is currently illegal. But, in the 1920s, smoking marijuana was not an uncommon practice among many people in the southern and southwest states. Some historians and sociologists hold that marijuana wasn’t made illegal because of its dangerous biological and psychological effects, but because of economic conditions!

The theory goes that as the job market shrank during the Great Depression, people from the South started migrating to other parts of the United States looking for work. They brought with them the habit of smoking marijuana. These immigrants from other states became a threat to the local job market that was already strained. Partly in response to this threat, local authorities outlawed the use of marijuana to discourage the immigrants from coming to or settling in the area. The law was an economic tool.

Would you like to post a reply or comment to this article? If so, select a talking point below and respond to it. Feel free to also respond to other people’s posting as well.

1. Can you think of any other social issues the law might be used to regulate?

2. What other groups of people might have been targeted through the manipulation of the law?

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