Saturday, January 17, 2009

End Pot Prohibition, but Keep Hard Drugs Illegal


Recently Culture11 held a mini-symposium on the drug legalization debate. (Read this, this, and this). I've got a stance that lies somewhere between the libertarian and the law & order types. I am strongly in favor of legalizing marijuana but I take a more cautious stance on the harder drugs.

For one, I've seen the effect first-hand of the terribly destructive power those drugs have on people, especially crystal meth. Heroin and cocaine, too, though. These aren't necessarily things that should be condoned as legal in our civil society. That there is a stigma attached to these drugs, that they do have some sort of legal penalty--this may be a good thing. And if we are reasonable about our other substances, perhaps there won't be much of a market for these harder drugs in the first place.

One huge benefit of legalizing pot (which is almost universally accepted as a pretty harmless substance these days) is its negative effect on revenue for the drug lords and cartels. One of the primary sources of income for these groups is marijuana, and conversely one of our primary costs in the "War on Drugs" is fighting marijuana imports, jailing pot users and petty pot dealers, and diverting law enforcement to deal with stoners when it could be fighting the real bad guys.

It’s by far the most widely used illegal substance, and once legalized would be an enormous source of tax revenue for the US Government. Taking it out of the black market would take the power away from dealers, and create jobs. It would take people out of the prisons, and free up space and money in that over-worked, over-crowded system. Anita Bartholemew writes:

Of the 872,000 arrests in 2007 for marijuana-related offenses, almost 90 percent were for simple possession of the dried vegetation in question. The typical arrestee is younger than 30. Think college-age kid caught lighting up a joint. Now, multiply that by 775,000 — that’s where a significant chunk of your drug war dollars are going.

The price of deploying an army of local, state and federal cops, prosecutors and guards to arrest, try and imprison the perpetrators of this non-scourge? Using data from 2000, Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimated it as $7.7 billion4 per year while a 2007 study, by public policy expert Jon Gettman, figured it closer to $10.7 billion 5 per year.

Most of that money is eaten up by law enforcement according to Miron, with $2.94 billion going to prosecution costs in 2000, and less than half a billion toward incarceration.

Add in the revenue we’d eventually gain if marijuana were regulated and taxed like alcohol and tobacco (from $6.2 billion to as much as $31.1 billion per year), and you’re talking real money.
You're damn right you're talking real money.

So, add to that the tax benefits of legalization, much of which could go to paying for better border security–you find yourself with a weakened network of drug cartels, as the market for smugglers will basically dry up except for imported hard drugs, which have a much smaller market share; you have more money to combat harder drugs from all these new cost-savings and increased tax revenues--basically you get a three-in-one: economic stimulus, increased national security, and increased liberty for non-violent, normal, and suddenly law-abiding Americans.

The economic stimulus would be extremely beneficial for this country at this point in history, with the recession looming. Legalized marijuana would be good for a wide variety of businesses, from medicinal to fast food chains. It is becoming more essential than ever for national security, as Mexico is looking more and more as though it is on the verge of total collapse--right up there with our nuclear pal Pakistan.

So in sum, I think the libertarian ideal of "your body, do what you want with it" is noble in purpose, but simply not pragmatic. And I'm not sure it's morally right either, no matter how theoretically good it sounds. Some of these drugs are literally horrible, addictive poisons that should simply not be given a pass by society at large. Others, like pot, are misunderstood, have few if any side-effects save the munchies, and could act as a bridge to a better, more civilized nation.

When Radley Balko warns of the "militirization of our police" I concur, but I think legalizing pot and keeping the other drugs illegal wll so temper this whole "war" that this will become far less of an issue. Police will get to be cops, looking for real bad guys or people who are legitimitaly ruining their lives with actual drugs.

Fredoosso warns that:

"Despite the wishful thinking of its proponents, drug legalization would result in broader drug use, and for exactly the same reasons a legal narcotics market tends to reduce the size of an illegal one—lower prices, greater convenience, more reliable supply, and far more security in one’s transactions."
I agree with this, too. This is one reason I think only marijuana should be legalized and not the other drugs. While I think we should lose the misnomer "War on Drugs" I think we should maintain a robust police effort to combat drug smuggling, and a larger societal effort to help addicts. Legalizing pot would also take the dealer out of the picture. The number one reason that pot is a gateway drug is because it's purchased from a dealer. So take out that middle man, and replace him with a clerk at a supermarket. Then you're much more likely to purchase Doritos with your weed as opposed to an eight-ball of Columbia's finest.

Also, the hit that drug cartels would take from the money lost over pot-sales, and the increased expense of smuggling the harder drugs, would actually drive up the cost of these drugs, making them more difficult to sell and to purchase. Supply and demand would drop significantly, and a healthier, legal alternative would be right there at your local Conoco.

So keep heroin illegal, but stop locking up our potheads. Send our police out to bring down meth labs, but let our stoners have their midnight snacks in peace. Use our border patrol agents to stop human smuggling, or to sniff out shipments of cocaine, but let the joint-smoking-hippies cross freely. This is a national security issue as well as a moral issue. And it would be good for our economy to boot.

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