By MASON RAYNER
For years, the United States government has engaged in a self-described “War on Drugs,” prohibiting both the consumption and distribution of various narcotics, including marijuana. Prohibition of pot has been the law of the land for decades now, so we can attempt to address the successes and failures of the policy with a high degree of confidence.
Surveying the results, it’s difficult not to come to the conclusion that the effects of prohibition have been an overall disaster. The costs have not come close to outweighing the benefits. New policies are desperately needed.
First, consider the financial costs that the government at the local, state and federal levels bears. Prosecuting and incarcerating non-violent pot offenders is a significant burden on prisons, courts and law enforcement agencies. For instance, in Virginia it costs roughly $25,000 a year to hold a prisoner, according to data from the Virginia Department of Corrections. Similarly, police forces and court systems divert significant portions of their limited budgets to arresting and prosecuting buyers and sellers of pot, drawing down money that could be better used to address crimes like murder, rape, assault and burglaries.
Jeffrey Miron, an economist at Harvard, has estimated that legalization would save governments $12.9 billion a year, while taxation of pot at similar levels to the current taxes on alcohol and cigarettes would raise $6.7 billion annually. At a purely monetary level, a policy that is costing us $19.6 billion a year doesn’t make sense.
But the costs go far beyond dollars and cents. There are serious human costs as well. In Mexico, there has been widespread violence as drug cartels battle each other for market share. The collateral damage has included many innocent people.
The reason these cartels engage in such bloody turf wars is because trafficking pot across the American border is a very lucrative trade. Artificially high prices resulting from prohibition create huge profit margins for dealers, attracting organized crime and other opportunistic criminals.
American demand for pot remains strong, regardless of high prices, so U.S. marijuana policies have inadvertently strengthened the various drug traffickers throughout Latin America. High prices ensure a strong stream of revenue for them, and also create incentives to knock off their competitors, leading to instability across the region. It is for these reasons that former presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia have all come out in favor of decriminalization (prosecuting sellers of drugs, but not users.)
But decriminalization is a halfway measure. We must remember that it is morally wrong and inconsistent with the limited government principles of the U.S. Constitution to imprison people for engaging in an activity that doesn’t harm others.
It could be argued that drug use imposes a negative externality on third parties (meaning that there are costs to the economic transaction not borne by either the buyer or seller, but rather society at large), but the solution to this problem is to simply tax the good in question, not criminalize it.
Arguments can be made against legalizing harder drugs (although Portugal has decriminalized all drugs quite successfully), but safety arguments for marijuana fail to impress. It is scientifically impossible to overdose on pot. Indeed, it could be argued that pot is much less hazardous to one’s health and bears less cost on society than alcohol and cigarette consumption.
Fourteen states have already legalized marijuana for medical purposes. The American Medical Association has endorsed research into the potential benefits of medical usage. Many people with chronic illnesses, such as cancer and Lou Gehrig’s disease, can ease their pain greatly through therapeutic use of pot. Is it right that in 36 states, people suffering from such diseases will be thrown in jail if they seek out the drug to alleviate their suffering?
Prohibition of marijuana has failed, just as prohibition of alcohol did. It is time to stop enriching criminals, throwing thousands of peaceful people in jail every year and wasting billions of dollars on enforcement of pot laws. Full legalization is the answer.