Should we legalize drugs? Conservative pundit, George Will, lays out the arguments, con and pro, in two columns recently published in the Washington Post.
I don’t always agree with Mr. Will, but he is the kind of conservative who is willing to admit the obvious failings of politicians on his side of the cultural divide, and he writes far better than most columnists, liberal or conservative, so, agree or don’t, you know what he’s driving at.
You won’t learn everything that needs to be said about the war on drugs in these two essays, and if you are a conservative with libertarian leanings you won’t find anything new. But if you believe the war on drugs is worthwhile and winnable, please read on. Will is no pot-smoking lefty; he just doesn’t want to spend $100,000 incarcerating a corner boy for a $100 transaction, and he doesn’t like supporting violent drug cartels. AGB
By George F. Will, Published: April 4
The Washington Post
The human nervous system interacts in pleasing and addictive ways with certain molecules derived from some plants, which is why humans may have developed beer before they developed bread. Psychoactive — consciousness-altering — and addictive drugs are natural, a fact that should immunize policymakers against extravagant hopes as they cope with America’s drug problem, which is convulsing some nations to our south.
The costs — human, financial and social — of combating (most) drugs are prompting calls for decriminalization or legalization. America should, however, learn from the psychoactive drug used by a majority of American adults — alcohol.
Mark Kleiman of UCLA, a policy analyst, was recently discussing drug policy with someone who said he had no experience with illegal drugs, not even marijuana, because he is of “the gin generation.” Ah, said Kleiman, gin: “A much more dangerous drug.” Twenty percent of all American prisoners — 500,000 people — are incarcerated for dealing illegal drugs, but alcohol causes as much as half of America’s criminal violence and vehicular fatalities.
Drinking alcohol had been a widely exercised private right for millennia when America tried to prohibit it. As a public-health measure, Prohibition “worked”: Alcohol-related illnesses declined dramatically. As the monetary cost of drinking tripled, deaths from cirrhosis of the liver declined by a third. This improvement was, however, paid for in the coin of rampant criminality and disrespect for law.
Prohibition resembled what is today called decriminalization: It did not make drinking illegal; it criminalized the making, importing, transporting or selling of alcohol. Drinking remained legal, so oceans of it were made, imported, transported and sold.
Another legal drug, nicotine, kills more people than do alcohol and all illegal drugs — combined. For decades, government has aggressively publicized the health risks of smoking and made it unfashionable, stigmatized, expensive and inconvenient. Yet 20 percent of every rising American generation becomes addicted to nicotine.
So, suppose cocaine or heroin were legalized and marketed as cigarettes and alcohol are. And suppose the level of addiction were to replicate the 7 percent of adults suffering from alcohol abuse or dependency. That would be a public health disaster. As the late James Q. Wilson said, nicotine shortens life, cocaine debases it.
Still, because the costs of prohibition — interdiction, mass incarceration, etc. — are staggeringly high, some people say, “Let’s just try legalization for a while.” Society is not, however, like a controlled laboratory; in society, experiments that produce disappointing or unexpected results cannot be tidily reversed.
Legalized marijuana could be produced for much less than a tenth of its current price as an illegal commodity. Legalization of cocaine and heroin would cut their prices, too; they would sell for a tiny percentage of their current prices. And using high excise taxes to maintain cocaine and heroin prices at current levels would produce widespread tax evasion — and an illegal market.
Furthermore, legalization would mean drugs of reliable quality would be conveniently available from clean stores for customers not risking the stigma of breaking the law in furtive transactions with unsavory people. So there is no reason to think today’s levels of addiction are anywhere near the levels that would be reached under legalization.
Regarding the interdicting of drug shipments, capturing “kingpin” distributors and incarcerating dealers, consider data from the book “Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know” by Kleiman, Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken. Almost all heroin comes from poppies grown on 4 percent of the arable land of one country — Afghanistan. Four South American countries — Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia — produce more than 90 percent of the world’s cocaine. But attempts to decrease production in source countries produce the “balloon effect.” Squeeze a balloon in one spot, it bulges in another. Suppress production of poppies or coca leaves here, production moves there. The $8 billion Plan Colombia was a melancholy success, reducing coca production there 65 percent, while production increased 40 percent in Peru and doubled in Bolivia.
In the 1980s, when “cocaine cowboys” made Miami lawless, the U.S. government created the South Florida Task Force to interdict cocaine shipped from Central and South America by small planes and cigarette boats. This interdiction was so successful the cartels opened new delivery routes. Tranquillity in Miami was purchased at the price of mayhem in Mexico.
America spends 20 times more on drug control than all the world’s poppy and coca growers earn. A subsequent column will suggest a more economic approach to the “natural” problem of drugs.
By George F. Will, Published: April 11
The Washington Post
Amelioration of today’s drug problem requires Americans to understand the significance of the 80-20 ratio. Twenty percent of American drinkers consume 80 percent of the alcohol sold here. The same 80-20 split obtains among users of illicit drugs.
About 3 million people — less than 1 percent of America’s population — consume 80 percent of illegal hard drugs. Drug-trafficking organizations can be most efficiently injured by changing the behavior of the 20 percent of heavy users, and we are learning how to do so. Reducing consumption by the 80 percent of casual users will not substantially reduce the northward flow of drugs or the southward flow of money.
Consider current policy concerning the only addictive intoxicant currently available as a consumer good — alcohol. America’s alcohol industry, which is as dependent on the 20 percent of heavy drinkers as they are on alcohol, markets its products aggressively and effectively. Because marketing can drive consumption, America’s distillers, brewers and vintners spend $6 billion on advertising and promoting their products. Americans’ experience with marketing’s power inclines them to favor prohibition and enforcement over legalization and marketing of drugs.
But this choice has consequences: More Americans are imprisoned for drug offenses or drug-related probation and parole violations than for property crimes. And although America spends five times more jailing drug dealers than it did 30 years ago, the prices of cocaine and heroin are 80 to 90 percent lower than 30 years ago.
In “Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know,” policy analysts Mark Kleiman, Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken argue that imprisoning low-ranking street-corner dealers is pointless: A $200 transaction can cost society $100,000 for a three-year sentence. And imprisoning large numbers of dealers produces an army of people who, emerging from prison with blighted employment prospects, can only deal drugs. Which is why, although a few years ago Washington, D.C., dealers earned an average of $30 an hour, today they earn less than the federal minimum wage ($7.25).
Dealers, a.k.a. “pushers,” have almost nothing to do with initiating drug use by future addicts; almost every user starts when given drugs by a friend, sibling or acquaintance. There is a staggering disparity between the trivial sums earned by dealers who connect the cartels to the cartels’ customers and the huge sums trying to slow the flow of drugs to those street-level dealers. Kleiman, Caulkins and Hawken say that, in developed nations, cocaine sells for about $3,000 per ounce — almost twice the price of gold. And the supply of cocaine, unlike that of gold, can be cheaply and quickly expanded. But in the countries where cocaine and heroin are produced, they sell for about 1 percent of their retail price in the United States. If cocaine were legalized, a $2,000 kilogram could be FedExed from Colombia for less than $50 and sold profitably here for a small markup from its price in Colombia, and a $5 rock of crack might cost 25 cents. Criminalization drives the cost of the smuggled kilogram in the United States up to $20,000. But then it retails for more than $100,000.
People used to believe enforcement could raise prices but doubted that higher prices would decrease consumption. Now they know consumption declines as prices rise but wonder whether enforcement can substantially affect prices.
Kleiman, Caulkins and Hawken urge rethinking the drug-control triad of enforcement, prevention and treatment because we have been much too optimistic about all three.
And cartels have oceans of money for corrupting enforcement because drugs are so cheap to produce and easy to renew. So it is not unreasonable to consider modifying a policy that gives hundreds of billions of dollars a year to violent organized crime.
Marijuana probably provides less than 25 percent of the cartels’ revenue. Legalizing it would take perhaps $10 billion from some bad and violent people, but the cartels would still make much more money from cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines than they would lose from marijuana legalization.
Sixteen states and the District have legalized “medical marijuana,” a messy, mendacious semi-legalization that breeds cynicism regarding law. In 1990, 24 percent of Americans supported full legalization. Today, 50 percent do. In 2010, in California, where one-eighth of Americans live, 46 percent of voters supported legalization, and some opponents were marijuana growers who like the profits they make from prohibition of their product.
Would the public health problems resulting from legalization be a price worth paying for injuring the cartels and reducing the costs of enforcement? We probably are going to find out.