Reefer madness

It isn't the drugs that are the disaster, it's the war. Fight drug abuse, but end the war on drugs now.

Natchitoches, LA - The production, sale and distribution of medical marijuana (for brevity, “pot”) may be coming soon to a state near you. This isn’t without some hand-wringing by state legislators and regulators. The states that have legalized or contemplate legalizing medical pot have to be careful to avoid offending federal sensibilities; federal law trumps state law and places strong prohibitions on the distribution of pot, even with a doctor’s excuse. People worry that some physicians are casual about prescribing pot to recreational users; in some places anyone with a cell-phone and a car can distribute pot to whomever calls in with a prescription; and there are stories of California communities whose electrical consumption has soared due to all the homes with grow-lights shining day and night in their garages. There’s growing willingness to let people getting radiation and chemotherapies to smoke pot to avoid the worst of the side-effects, but no one wants to look soft on drugs.

To which I say chill, dudes. You’re worrying about the wrong thing. The war on drugs has been an unmitigated disaster, destroying lives, corrupting public officials, eroding civil liberties, costing society billions, all the while enriching drug dealers and elevating the violence of drug markets to jaw-shattering levels. We’d harm society less if we dropped bails of pot from army helicopters onto every town and put the stuff in our children’s brownies. No, it’s unfair to say that the war is entirely without its merits: By doubling the federal and state prison populations in the last couple of decades we’ve managed to keep unemployment rates of young black men down. They’re the ones disproportionately clogging our system for drug crimes, and as guests of the state they don’t count as part of the civilian labor force.

To simplify greatly, the war on drugs is designed to push supply down. As any student of Econ 101 could tell you, that pushes the quantity bought and sold down and the price up, all else held constant (which it never is, but never mind). But here’s a question for you - is demand for pot more like demand for cigarettes or more like demand for cabbage? If the price of cabbage shoots up I stop buying it and eat carrots instead. Same for milk; I can just pour root-beer on the kids’ chocolate-coated sugar bombs every morning. Cigarettes are a different story. If the price goes up, the kids lose their lunch money but I still get my cigarettes. Not incidentally, that’s why taxing cigarettes is a dandy way to raise government revenues but not so much to stamp out smoking, and it even lets you wring a lot of tax money from poor people without offending liberal sensibilities. Yes, consumption falls some, but the total amount spent on cigarettes goes up when we raise cigarette prices. Cabbage growers should be so lucky.

By pushing up spending on drugs, the war on drugs increases the revenues of drug dealers. By imposing draconian penalties on them when we catch them, we greatly reduce the cost to them of violence - when there’s a mandatory life sentence for dealing drugs and the penalties for breaking legs are variable, you’re really much better off pulping a few witnesses than going quietly. Those higher prices let you hire better lawyers, buy police officers, and generally grease your way through the system.

Police and judicial officials are corrupted in another way as well. Police departments get to keep money and property used in the drug trade, so they have an incentive to find a lot of drug dealing and seize lots of property. They don’t even have to charge you with a crime in a civil forfeiture. If they take your car, it will probably cost you more in legal fees to get it back than it’s worth, so better to just walk away and let them keep it. It turns out that this is an important source of revenue for a lot of police departments. The concepts of property rights and due process are collateral damage of the judicial gold-rush.

In light of the human and legal carnage caused by the war on drugs, why would anyone worry about letting people smoke pot, even if they aren’t dying of some disease? Well, there’s the tragedy of lives destroyed by drugs, but the question remains, which destroys more lives - drugs, or the war on drugs? Would more lives be destroyed by drugs if they were legal than are destroyed while they’re not? I don’t have an answer, and without answers I’m too cautious to suggest legalizing recreational drugs across the board. Still, there are indications that the war on drugs makes the human toll due to actual drug use worse. First, because drug use is illegal, people are more likely to keep it secret than to seek help. Second, because the war makes drugs more expensive, users are more likely to engage in crime to fund their habits, further increasing their reluctance to come clean to people who can help. Third, because drugs are illegal and buying them is risky, people want more bang for their buck. Just as happened during Prohibition, harder, more potent, and much more addictive forms of drugs are developed and become more popular. Fourth, because drug use is illegal, casual drug users and their families are ground up in the criminal justice system when they’re caught. The same kid can end up in prison or become president (inhaling or not), all depending on the luck of the draw. Fifth, most people who don’t use drugs probably don’t abstain just because use is illegal or because the war has made them expensive. If the price of cigarettes collapsed tomorrow, neither I nor most of the non-smokers I know would rush out to buy cigarettes. A few would, but the health dangers and social disapproval shown to smokers are enough to keep most of us away.

Would legalizing pot remove the social stigma against it and cause an outbreak of drug abuse? I don’t know, but I doubt it. The evidence from other countries is that it doesn’t, but generalizing from a country like the Netherlands to the U.S. is risky. The evidence is so far that smoking pot is less dangerous than smoking cigarettes, that pot is less addictive than nicotine (in fact, it doesn’t seem to be addictive at all), and that legal users are less likely to end up in a gutter than drinkers. The evidence that pot is a “gateway drug,” inducing people to use more dangerous drugs, is not strong.

I do know that legalizing drugs, even if it’s only pot, would enhance respect for the law, which suffers when the law is applied in the often arbitrary an uneven ways drug laws are today. It would be devastating to Mexican drug dealers and the Taliban. It would make travel to Tijuana safer and gut the financial resources of most of our urban gangs. It would eliminate the legal excuse to burst into people’s homes like Nazi storm troopers and shoot the family dog, it would cut prison expenditures in half, and it would give the police more time to solve homicides (which would be rarer) and make me feel much more secure in the ownership of my car. If you still worry that drug users will be out there driving trucks and performing surgery under the influence, we could always suspend licenses or chop off fingers for operating while intoxicated. The collateral damages of this war are too great. It’s time to end them and deal with the actual problems of drug abuse.

James Picht teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, Louisiana. From the age of six he always knew what he wanted to be. Economist wasn’t it. But after accidentally falling in to it he found that he liked it. Now he also likes raising his two children, being a husband to Lisa, and taking pictures of trees in the middle of the night. His favorite drug is chocolate.


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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