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The Freedom Index

A study conducted by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University concludes that our most libertarian state is New Hampshire (“Live Free or Die”) and the least is New York. It compiles statistics and data through the end of 2006.

Live Free or Die coin The study – Freedom in the 50 States: An Index of Personal and Economic Freedom – is based on criteria such as marijuana policies, smoking bans, tobacco and alcohol taxes and regulations, blue laws, marriage and domestic partner regulations, same-sex partner laws, abortion restrictions, state and income taxes, seat-belt laws, bicycle and motorcycle helmet laws, sobriety checkpoints, open-container bans, cell-phone driving bans, compulsive schooling, mandatory kindergarden, teacher qualifications, home-schooling regulations, automobile and road regulations, prostitution laws, gaming and gambling laws, asset forfeiture, campaign finance regulations, land and environmental regulations, recycling requirements, physician-assisted suicide bans, and arrests for victimless crimes.

“Our report not only provides a broader framework for understanding the state of freedom in the American states, but also more carefully measures the economic components of freedom,” write the study’s authors William P. Ruger and Jason Sorens.


“New Hampshire comes out on top as the freest state in the United States,” Ruger and Sorens note. “It achieved this ranking due to its excellent fiscal policies and moderate levels of regulation and paternalism. However, as with all of the states, even New Hampshire has room for improvement, and post-2006 political changes in that state may mean that its ranking in this study will fall the next time we update the data and rankings. Colorado, South Dakota, Idaho and Texas round out the top five. The first three states in the rankings are clumped tightly together, and thus citizens of all three states should be pleased to live in the freest states in the Union.

“On the other hand, many states perform quite poorly in providing a liberty-friendly environment for their citizens. New York is the least free by a considerable
margin. This will surprise few residents of the Empire State. In order from the bottom, New York is followed by New Jersey, Rhode Island, California and Maryland. Unfortunately, these states make up a substantial portion of the total American population. Moreover, these bottom five states have considerable ground to make up even to move off this ignoble list, let alone into a creditable position in the rankings.”


Live Free or Die”Marijuana policies are a high-profile issue and are worth over a tenth of the Paternalism index. Full legalization of the production and sale of marijuana is the optimal policy choice, which will enhance freedom, not only by allowing adults to engage in consensual behavior of their choice but also by reducing the harmful consequences of the Drug War and the related and more dangerous activities that result from drugs being illegal (such as incentives for gang involvement). Unfortunately, every state criminalizes the production and sale of marijuana for non-medical purposes. Some states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, legalized medical marijuana or moderated sentencing criteria for marijuana offenses. These policies should be understood as ‘humanitarian’ measures rather than real alternatives to Prohibition. Nevertheless, they do enhance freedom for some people in an important way.

“We consider medical marijuana exceptions to be the least important marijuana policy in our dataset, partly because fewer people are affected by this exception than by marijuana laws in general, but mostly because laboratory-developed cannabinoids are rendering the medical argument for legalization less compelling over time. Anything that increases individuals’ fundamental freedom in their own bodies is positive, but the other marijuana policies – legalization of low-level possession (only in Alaska), decriminalization of low-level possession, making high-level possession a misdemeanor rather than a felony, making low-level cultivation a misdemeanor rather than a felony, mandatory-minimum sentences for low-level cultivation or sale, and maximum possible sentences for a single marijuana offense (some states allow life in prison for a single marijuana charge) – are more important.”


This section excerpts the study’s references to marijuana policies and laws for individual states. Marijuana was not mentioned for several states.

1. New Hampshire – “Marijuana laws are middling; low-level possession could be decriminalized like Maine, while low-level cultivation could be made a misdemeanor like both Maine and Vermont”

2. Colorado – “One of 12 states to have decriminalized low-level marijuana possession” [Note: The total is now 13; also, medical marijuana is legal in Colorado]

3. South Dakota – “Scores… relatively poorly on marijuana laws”

4. Idaho – “Could improve its marijuana laws substantially”

5. Texas – “Low-level marijuana cultivation is a misdemeanor, but otherwise marijuana laws are very harsh”

6. Missouri – “Marijuana sentencing is extremely harsh”

7. Tennessee – “The first offense of marijuana possession is always a misdemeanor, but otherwise the state has fairly harsh marijuana laws”

8. Arizona – “Its marijuana laws, which are about average, could be improved by making high-level possession a misdemeanor and by decriminalizing low-level possession”

9. Virginia – “Marijuana laws are largely unreformed”

10. North Dakota – “Marijuana laws are poor”

11. Utah

12. Kansas – “Marijuana sentencing laws are quite humane”

13. Indiana – “Has managed to construct a relatively humane marijuana sentencing regime, although decriminalization would be even better”

14. Michigan – “Low-level marijuana possession is decriminalized” [Note: Marijuana is not decriminalized in Michigan]

15. Wyoming

16. Iowa – “Marijuana sentencing definitely needs reform”

17. Georgia – “Marijuana laws are bad, but not as punitive as those of Alabama or Missouri”

18. Oklahoma – “Marijuana sentencing is unreformed”

19. Montana – “Marijuana sentencing is extremely harsh” [Note: In 2006, Montana legalized medical marijuana]

20. Pennsylvania

21. Alabama – “Marijuana laws are unusually punitive: A three-year mandatory minimum sentence exists for all marijuana cultivation or sale convictions, by far the highest in the country, and the maximum sentence for a single cultivation or sale conviction is life in prison”

22. Florida – “Marijuana laws are generally quite restrictive”

23. North Carolina – “Could improve by… reforming marijuana sentencing (it is already a ‘decrim’ state)”

24. Nevada – “Marijuana laws are better than average, except for the possibility of life imprisonment for a single conviction” [Note: Marijuana is decriminalized and medical marijuana is legal in Nevada]

25. Mississippi – “Marijuana policies are a study in contradictions. Low-level possession is decriminalized, and low-level cultivation is a misdemeanor rather than a felony, but you can get life in prison for a single conviction of high-level cultivation or sale”

26. Delaware – “Could easily stand to improve its marijuana regime (high-level possession and low-level cultivation and sale are felonies)”

27. Oregon – “Marijuana possession is decriminalized below a certain level, and there is medical marijuana (cultivation and sale are felonies, though)”

28. Nebraska – “Marijuana laws are relatively liberal, except for the one-year mandatory-minimum sentence for low-level cultivation or sale and the 50-year maximum penalty” [Note: Marijuana is decriminalized in Nebraska]

29. Arkansas

30. South Carolina – “Marijuana laws are unreconstructed”

31. Alaska – “Fully legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana (accomplished through a court ruling)” [Note: Medical marijuana is also legal in Alaska]

32. Kentucky

33. West Virginia – “Marijuana laws are fairly moderate” [Note: West Virginia is not a decrim state]

34. Louisiana – “Marijuana sentencing regime is subpar, with the maximum sentence for a single offense being 80 years and even low-level cultivation a felony”

35. Minnesota [Note: Marijuana is decriminalized in Minnesota]

36. New Mexico – “Marijuana laws could definitely be improved” [Note: In 2007, New Mexico legalized medical marijuana]

37. Wisconsin

38. Ohio -“Marijuana laws are liberal overall, but cultivation and sale sentencing could be reformed” [Note: Marijuana is decriminalized in Ohio]

39. Maine – “First offense of low-level marijuana possession carries only a fine, and low-level cultivation is a misdemeanor. The state also has medical-marijuana exceptions, and the maximum sentence for a single marijuana offense is 10 years.” [Note: Marijuana is decriminalized in Maine]

40. Vermont – “Marijuana laws could be much better; while low-level cultivation is a misdemeanor, high-level possession is not, and low-level possession is still criminalized” [Note: Medical marijuana is legal in Vermont]

41. Connecticut

42. Illinois

43. Massachusetts – “Not particularly good marijuana laws” [Note: In 2008, Massachusetts became the 13th state to decriminalize marijuana]

44. Washington – “Marijuana laws are a bit better than average, but making high-level possession and low-level cultivation misdemeanors and low-level possession a civil offense would help further” [Note: Medical marijuana is legal in Washington]

45. Hawaii – “The marijuana regime is fairly restrictive” [Note: Medical marijuana is legal in Hawaii]

46. Maryland

47. California – “Does well of course on… marijuana” [Note: Marijuana is decriminalized and medical marijuana is legal in California]

48. Rhode Island – “Marijuana regime is extremely poor for a liberal state (life imprisonment is the maximum sentence)” [Note: In 2007, Rhode Island legalized medical marijuana]

49. New Jersey – “Marijuana laws are subpar”

50. New York – “Marijuana laws are better than average” [Note: Marijuana is decriminalized in New York]


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