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An End to Prohibition?

September 19th, 2012 No comments

BOOK REVIEW: Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know, Jonathan P. Caulkins, Angela Hawken, Beau Kilmer, Mark A.R. Kleiman. Oxford University Press, NY, 2012.

With nearly universal agreement that the War on Drugs has done more to spur the illicit drug trade than to stop it (even the current Drug Czar concedes the point), now comes the idea of marijuana legalization. 74% of Americans support its use as medicine. To date 17 states have made it legal for that purpose. Can the Feds be far behind?

Four scholars with a background in drug policy analysis at the RAND Corporation now weigh in on the question. One could not ask for a more balanced and clear treatment of the controversy. For readers in a hurry let me reveal that three support legal weed, and one doesn’t. But you’d miss a great deal if you didn’t read more.

Making something illegal that a lot of people want puts a smile on the faces of criminals the world over. Drug policy is the largest reason there exists a 600 billion dollar a year drug trade. It is the reason the U.S. has the world’s largest prison system. It also makes criminals out of millions of otherwise law abiding citizens who smoke marijuana.

Despite the trillion dollars spent in the War on Drugs over the last forty years, and the 750,000 marijuana arrests each year in the US, the majority of American high schoolers still report that weed is “easy to get.” Half of the seniors used it in 2011. No wonder. The cost for weed use comes in at less than a dollar per stoned hour, a lot cheaper than the ticket to see The Dark Knight.

Weed is, well, a weed. It’s easy to grow. A small house with grow lights can yield a retail crop of $2.5 million. In the U.S. economists estimate that weed production is in the top 15 of cash crops, on par with potatoes and grapes. If marijuana use occurs de facto, why not end its prohibition?

Not so fast, say the authors. Making weed legal is likely to increase the numbers of people dependent on it. It accounts for the second highest number of drug treatment admissions. 90% of all weed use starts by the age of 21, and evidence shows it’s more harmful to the young. Our legal intoxicants, alcohol and tobacco, now cause incalculable harm. Big tobacco and liquor have shamelessly marketed to the young. Is there anyone who believes that commercial weed producers would act any better? Cold feet in Washington are the norm on this one. But legalization appears to be occurring piece meal, and that may not be such a bad thing.

These authors note, “Legalization is the opposite of prohibition. It avoids the costs of prohibition-loss of liberty, criminal enterprise, and the need for reinforcement-at the risk of increased drug abuse.” In the end, it is also more honest. The claim that marijuana is medicine is largely unproven, but legalization would make it less of a battle cry and more of an interest to pharmacologists. Marijuana sales would provide tax revenues. Drug cartels would lose the weed market (but cocaine or heroin sales would still keep them in business). Drug arrests would be cut in half. Probationers and parolees would stop being returned to prison simply for smoking weed. Because persons of color are arrested for weed seven times more than whites, despite no greater use, this form of racism would vanish. As the authors note, “letting people do more of what they like doing, at lower cost and with fewer risks, fears, and penalties-ought to count, by all the canons of ordinary economic reasoning, as potential benefits of making marijuana legally available.”

But legalization would still be a social experiment writ large. How many more drug dependent people would it create? Would addicts of other drugs “trade down” to a legal substitute? Could we change the focus of the War on Drugs from one of cops and crops to one of prevention and treatment? Caulkins et al. agree that permissive alcohol and tobacco laws alongside marijuana prohibition make no sense. But the authors are not street drug cowboys. The three authors supporting legal weed are unified in doing it with our eyes open. That means keeping tabs on the costs and benefits. Legalizing state by state has something to offer here, if simply because they can be compared to those where the drug is still illegal. Among the book’s many good ideas is that any legalization law should have a sunset provision- a point in time when the law stops, and we all take a hard look at whether we are moving in the right direction.

To date the controversy over legal marijuana turns on whether reefer is madness or medicine. In California where it is available by prescription, the record is medical practice out of Moliere. Store fronts run by grasping doctors sell letters justifying medicinal weed to anyone with a credit card. One study of 4,000 “patients” seeking medical marijuana found that they tended to be males aged 32 who had started weed as teens and had fewer disabilities than the national average. A second study found few patients were diagnosed with diseases which weed is said to help, such as neuropathic pain and AIDS. Does it work? We don’t know. In place of clinical trials, weed advocates have claimed it does by a show of hands. This may be smart politics, but it’s not medical science. In the meantime, any kid in America can find a joint, but the Federal government continues to keep marijuana out of the hands of researchers who could give us better answers. Caulkins et al. provide a good antidote for the zealous on both sides.