Lubbock locals filled the Allen theater at Texas Tech recently to hear a debate billed as "Heads vs. Feds," featuring an editor from High Times magazine, of all places, and an ex-DEA offical. The event was moderated by Tech law professor Arnold Loewy, who wrote about it in yesterday's Avalanche Journal. Loewy said that the gentleman from the DEA:
only discussed the harm that marijuana does. He did not discuss the harm that laws against marijuana cause.It's amazing to me that they could attract so many in Lubbock for that debate ("thousands of students" attended, the paper reported); that tells me folks are hungry for a more honest exchange on drug policy.
Indeed, at one point, he recounted the tragic tale of a DEA agent killed in the line of duty by a mafia-affiliated drug pusher. He then used this story as an illustration of the harm that drugs do. This was a mischaracterization. Drugs did not cause the death of this agent. Laws against drugs caused his death. Government agents are not usually killed enforcing alcohol or tobacco regulations.
So, to my mind, in assessing whether we should decriminalize drugs, the question is whether the cost of drugs being criminal harms society more than the drugs themselves. In my judgment it does.
Let's look at some of the harm caused by the criminalization of drugs. A brief but incomplete catalogue includes the death of law enforcement officers, gang turf wars over drug territories, drug pushers trying to hook teenagers with "free samples" to ensure a continuing clientele, overcrowded prisons populated substantially with drug dealers and users, insufficient prison space for long-term sentences for violent offenders and a substantial increase in crime by users who have to turn to prostitution, robbery, and even murder to obtain money to afford drugs because of the inflated prices charged by criminals.I believe these costs are worse than the cost of drugs being legal.
Recently US drug czar John Walters said Mexican officials told him marijuana sales are the backbone of drug cartel revenues, financing murders and gang wars south of the border in increasingly shocking numbers. Reported AP, "Walters made the comments following a meeting with Mexican officials who want the U.S. to prosecute marijuana cases more zealously to reduce the amount of cash gangs can spend on guns."
So at the end of the day, which is worse? Letting Coors and Budweiser take over pot distribution and regulating it like alcohol, or arming violent gangs with profits from a plant that many users would probably grow at home for free if you let them!
At the risk of being forever labeled a "legalizer," I agree with Prof. Loewy that for marijuana, the costs of legalization - arming violent, murderous gangs with high-powered weapons, groups who are already training and arming teenage assassins on the US side of the border - far outweigh any benefits from current marijuana policies. For harder drugs the arguments are stronger for prohibition (though from an economist's perspective, still debatable), and less likely to gain a consensus. I'm a big fan of the harm reduction approach in Vancouver that I've written about before, and think that on harder drugs that's the direction we need to head first. But clearly what we're doing now isn't working, and we can't afford to just expand funding for the same failed strategies.
I don't believe we can arrest our way out of America's drug problem, especially for pot. If the drug czar is correct that marijuana is the backbone of drug cartel profits and directly financing the expansion of their armory, at what point does the debate in Lubbock need to expand to the state and national stage? Will we wait until Mexican/Colombian-style violence engulfs Laredo, or El Paso? San Antonio? Dallas? At what point, I wonder, will this country ever take the obvious step of just turning off the marijuana money spigot?
RELATED: To any economist, all these problems were obvious years ago (which is why the late Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley supported legalizing pot). As evidence, here's an oldie but a goodie, a half-hour talk by Harvard economist Jeff Miron, one of Friedman's economist collaborators. The speech is from 2000, but if he'd made the same presentation this week in Lubbock, it would have been utterly current. Take a half hour to give it a listen, perhaps over the weekend, to hear Miron expertly dissect the economics of prohibition. Via Greg Mankiw: