Tag Archives: legalization

Smoking and Drinking

Have you ever wondered about the disparity in the way the law treats alcohol, tobacco and marijuana?

As any police officer will attest, a nasty drunk is far more dangerous than someone zoned out on “weed.” As the scientific literature will confirm, tobacco is many times more harmful than marijuana. Not only has the belief that marijuana is a “gateway drug” proved bogus, but for adults, it is less harmful than either smoking or excessive ingestion of alcohol. (No one has ever died of a marijuana overdose, although if your preferred method of indulging is brownies, I suppose the resulting obesity might get you.)

People with addictive personalities will abuse whatever is at hand–alcohol, drugs, even glue. Should we outlaw glue?

The history of America’s war on drugs is too labyrinthian and too racist to recount here, and there are plenty of books and articles on the subject if you are interested in the whole sordid story. Suffice it to say that our mindless war on weed has made the once-profitable cultivation of hemp illegal, prevented study of marijuana’s medicinal value, and not-so-incidentally ruined countless lives (mostly African-American; black people are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, even though both groups use the drug at roughly the same rate.).

But attitudes are finally changing.

In 1969, according to the Pew Research Center, 84 percent of Americans thought the drug should be illegal; by 2015, that number had fallen to 44 percent.

After Colorado became the first state to legalize marijuana, policymakers began to seriously consider a number of issues–especially pot’s potential to generate tax revenue.

Legalization raises a number of questions with policy implications. For example, how can it be taxed? In 2015, Colorado raised $135 million in taxes and fees from legal sales. Another important question: Will states that stop arresting people for selling or having marijuana save money on policing and reduce their incarceration rates? Some 620,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2014, according to the FBI; young minority men were disproportionately targeted. Will more children take to smoking weed? As laws relax and the stigma associated with marijuana recedes, people may use more.

A study from Australia suggests some answers to those questions. The authors looked at what consequences we might expect if marijuana were regulated like alcohol and sold to people above the age of 21. They extrapolated their analysis to include the United States, a country with similar cultural behaviors and economies. Here are some of their findings:

  • The U.S. could raise between $4 billion and $12 billion annually by taxing legal marijuana. These numbers are based on a tax levy of about 25 percent, which is what the state of Colorado charges.
  • When people have more access to marijuana (through legal and illegal means) more people use it.
  • Currently, 17 percent of Australians say they do not use cannabis for fear of legal repercussions; 90 percent of those say that access is not the reason.

Access is evidently not a problem for people in either country; several years ago, an American study found that teenagers in Maryland could obtain illegal marijuana (and other drugs) much more easily than they could obtain legal but regulated alcohol. Legalization and regulation similar to that currently in place for liquor stores would probably reduce today’s easy availability.

The authors determined that a tax rate of 25% wasn’t high enough to incentivize a black market. One of the (many) negative consequences of drug prohibition is the fact that it makes an illegal market profitable.

In the U.S., tobacco and alcohol interests have powerful lobbies, so those substances are legal even though they do far more harm than marijuana.

Just to be clear, I don’t advocate prohibition for any of these; we’ve seen how well that works. Substance abuse is a public health problem; it shouldn’t be a matter for the criminal justice system.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we based public policy on evidence and analysis, rather than moralism and money?

File Under “Duh”

Andrew Sullivan recently reported on some interesting research into the consequences of state-level marijuana legalization.

A 2012 research paper by the Mexican Competitiveness Institute in Mexico called ‘If Our Neighbours Legalise’, said that the legalisation of marijuana in Colorado, Washington and California would depress cartel profits by as much as 30 per cent. A 2010 Rand Corp study of what would happen if just California legalised suggests a more modest fall-out. Using consumption in the US as the most useful measure, its authors posit that marijuana accounts for perhaps 25 per cent of the cartels’ revenues. The cartels would survive losing that, but still. “That’s enough to hurt, enough to cause massive unemployment in the illicit drugs sector,” says [fellow at the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center David] Shirk. Less money for cartels means weaker cartels and less capacity to corrupt the judiciary and the police in Mexico with crumpled bills in brown envelopes. Crimes like extortion and kidnappings are also more easily tackled. …

Mr Shirk puts it this way. If you ask enforcement folk how large a dent their interdiction efforts – seizures, arrests, helicopter raids and so on – actually have on cartel earnings, they will say between 5 and 10 per cent. But just a few states embracing legal cannabis may end up robbing them of two to five times that amount.

In other words, when you reduce demand for an illegal product–in this case, by offering a legal alternative–you reduce illegal behavior associated with the marketing of that product.

Since cannabis is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco, regulating its sale and taxing it–rather than criminalizing its use– would appear to be a win-win.

Pot and Kettle

Yesterday, the head of Indiana State Police did something police officers rarely do: he gave a candid answer to a question posed by a legislative study committee. State police Superintendent Paul Whitesell told members of the State Budget Committee on Tuesday that he had followed the issue during 40 years in law enforcement and believed we should legalize and tax possession of small amounts.

Whitesell had the guts to say publicly what numerous police officers and judges have said privately for years. The “War on Drugs” is a failure by any measure you want to apply: it’s illogical, expensive, and ineffective. The inclusion of marijuana in that war–in contrast to hard drugs–makes even less sense.

Current laws are illogical for a number of reasons. Drug abuse (which, by the way, is nowhere defined in our drug laws, which focus on any use of a “scheduled” substance) is a public health issue. Behaviors connected to the use of drugs–driving while impaired, theft to support a habit, etc.–are matters to be addressed by the criminal law, but the mere use of a substance deemed harmful is a health issue, and should be addressed as a health issue. Marijuana is less harmful to users than tobacco, yet we have wildly different approaches to pot and tobacco use–undoubtedly the result of a much more effective tobacco lobby. According to police officers I know, people who use pot are significantly less likely to become violent than people who abuse alcohol, yet we outlaw pot, but regulate and tax alcohol and tobacco.

Current laws are fiscally wasteful. The US spends roughly 60 billion dollars annually on drug prohibition, and we get virtually no bang for those bucks (see ineffective, below). We also forgo collection of billions of dollars in potential tax revenues that we would collect if we simply taxed pot like we treat alcohol and tobacco. We waste criminal justice resources that would be better used elsewhere, to treat drug abuse or to deter nonconsensual crimes that actually harm others. (Whitesell made this point in his testimony.)

We’ve lost this war. Not that the War on Drugs has ever been effective; the percentage of Americans who use hard drugs is pretty much the same as it has always been. Pot use has ebbed and flowed over time, providing the only real changes in the numbers. Thirty plus years of research has consistently demonstrated the utter failure of American drug policy, and the error of the premises upon which it has been constructed. (Pot smokers become hard drug users in about the same percentages as milk drinkers do, and we don’t outlaw milk as a “gateway drug.”) The only thing the Drug War has done effectively is ruin the lives of (disproportionately black) teenagers who are imprisoned for non-violent drug crimes.

What is frustrating is the number of policymakers who respond to this mountain of evidence with a renewed enthusiasm for failed interventions.

What would you think of a doctor who had performed a certain operation 200 times, with the same result: all the patients died. How convinced would you be by his conviction that he just needed to do more of that operation?

When are we going to learn from our mistakes?