Another drug (yawn) legalization pitch

Sometimes I think that the legalizers and the drug warriors have a secret arms control treaty, in which each side renounces the use of factually and logically sound arugments.

Esquire publishes yet another drug-leglization screed. Whoever does press relations for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition deserves a bonus.

Demolition of the argument (if you can call it that) is left as an exercise for the reader. A few hints, just to get you started:

1. Alcohol – the drug we decided to legalize and regulate – kills about 100,000 people a year: several times as many as all the illicit drugs combined.

2. The notion that there’s a set of taxes and regulations that would avoid creating a big illicit market while not increasing drug abuse substantially doesn’t pass the giggle test. (Licit pharmaceutical-grade cocaine costs about a tenth as much as street cocaine. So legalization means either a huge price drop or a set of taxes crying out for profitable evasion, and thus requiring enforcement.)

3. Counting all the overdoses as costs of prohibition would make sense – if no one ever died of alcohol poisoning or overdosed on prescdription drugs (often mixed with alcohol).

4. Yes, street gangs do some drug dealing. But it’s absurd to imagine that the gang killings would disappear if the drug market became legal.

Sometimes I think that the legalizers and the drug warriors have a secret arms control treaty, in which each side renounces the use of factually and logically sound arguments.

Update Pete Guither, as usual, either can’t or won’t understand the point. He agrees that the nonsense numbers in the Esquire argument are “a bit of hyperbole” but argues that “the other side” makes stuff up as well. That, of course, is exactly what I said: there’s a competition in inventing facts and concocting false arguments between two completely unreasonable groups of people, and between them they’ve managed to virtually monopolize the drug policy debate.

Guither can’t understand why I’m hostile to the drug-legalization movement, since I favor a form of cannabis legalization myself. But my objection isn’t to the claim that some currently forbidden drugs ought to be made legally available to some people under some conditions for some non-medical use.

My objection is to the claim that there’s a hideous monster out there called “prohibition,” and that the main drug policy task is to slay that monster with the magic sword of “taxation and regulation.” That claim is just as stupid as the drug-warrior claim that there’s a hideous monster out there called “drugs” and that the main drug-policy task is to slay that monster with the magic sword of a “a drug-free society.”

In the real world, drug consumption responds to price, and the consumption of heavy users is more responsive than the consumption of casual users, because heavy users spend a bigger fraction of their income on drugs. In the real world, prohibition increases price. Therefore, an end to prohibition would decrease price, and therefore increase consumption, especially heavy consumption. In the real world, alcohol and cocaine (like any depressant-stimulant pair) are economic complements: using more of one leads to using more of the other, and therefore a price drop for one leads to a consumption increase for the other. The legalizer rant consists mostly of ignoring those simple realities.

Guither’s post is headed “Where Kleiman gets annoyed once again that people are having a discussion.” Well, as Barack Obama said about the war in Iraq, I’m not against discussions; I’m against dumb discussions that substitute slogans for facts and emotion for analysis.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

10 thoughts on “Another drug (yawn) legalization pitch”

  1. Your argument doesn't make much sense, you claim often that others are ignoring some,"reality," that only you agree with.

    You claim that the heaviest drug users consumption responds to price very well. Economists such as Milton Friedman would disagree, it does not respond to price very well. In a large majority of heavy usage(of addictive drugs) cases, users are physically addicted to the drug, meaning that their usage will not go down if they have to pay more of their income for the same amount. Similarly, it will not scale upward well with price decreases, as after a certain point of addiction one is simply avoiding withdrawals, and rarely does one get as much enjoyment anymore. Lighter users(the larger class of users), would respond much stronger to price changes.

    I agree that there probably would be a spike if legalization occurred, especially with marijuana. However, it would be just that, a spike! Usage rates would come back down with time. Fortunately, we have some _actual_ evidence for this, which is the nation of Portugal. Since decriminalization of drug usage(not sale), usage rates have gone down across the board, and treatment rates have gone up(much preferable to imprisonment).

    The obvious solution to 2. is a huge price drop. While you claim that it would lead to a huge rise in usage, the Portugal case summarily disproves that.

    As for 4. anyone who believes drug legalization would stop all gang activity/killings is delusional. But drug trafficking is a _major_ source of income for gangs in general, probably greater than that of gun trafficking(I do not know the numbers, but drug demand and supply is higher based on what I've seen). Legalizing drugs here would remove a massive portion of drug sales out of gangs hands and into legitimate chemical and agricultural companies. Furthermore, many paramilitary/guerilla movements are funded by cultivation of coca bush or opium poppy, and we could give them a run for their money too.

    I'll spare you the accusation of tacitly supporting terrorism for keeping heroin illegal.

  2. Mr Kleiman says "an end to prohibition would decrease price, and therefore increase consumption, especially heavy consumption." That's not certain. Treating users of hard drugs as human beings instead of vermin would reduce the extreme alienation that is a factor in their drug use and will empower public health workers to gain their trust. And funding from a reasonable tax would be available for treatment on need. And drug education could become a credible enterprise instead of the ridiculed handmaiden of alcohol supremacism.

    The biggest reasons to legalize hard drugs in some way are to reduce the power of the scary cartels (What's stopping these smuggling specialists- hey, want a cheap underwater submarine?- from teaming up with political terrorists? Nothing) and to largely eliminate the huge numbers of burglaries and robberies, some leading to murder, that are committed to obtain funds for black market drugs. It wouldn't just reduce such crime, it would reduce the in many areas pervasive fear of such crime too. Under legalization, addicts may suffer more, but their need to inflict suffering on the rest of us will be way reduced. That's how it should be- addicts should suffer from their addiction, not the rest of us.

    As the folks at said, if Mr. Kleiman thinks 15,000 a year US dead from the war on drugs is too high, what is his best estimate? If cannabis and/or cannabis components prove to have anti-cancer properties, as appears to be the case, 15,000 could turn out to be way low. The alcohol related deaths caused by prohibiting cannabis have to be taken into account as well.

    There IS a hideous monster out there called prohibition, ruining lives left and right and causing a corruption fest and a snitch fest. Cannabis prohibition is a particularly degenerate enterprise. Doesn't every serious person know alcohol is much more dangerous? What the hell is the point of trying to force people to use killer alcohol instead of cannabis?

  3. I don't know about that "low prices means more use" idea. Marijuana in the Netherlands is less than half the price of what it is in the US (over there you can get 2 grams for 6 euros; in the US you get 1 gram for 20 dollars), and a lot less people smoke in the Netherlands than in the US.

  4. (apology for the two separate posts)

    About 4. : As I understand it, there are three major reasons to join a gang. One is status. Another is security. Another is respect.

    As with anything else in society, if you have money you have status. If you take away drug profits from gangs, you deliver a strong blow to their status.

    People join gangs for security because they don't trust the police. Not only do they not trust them, but they see the police as an enemy. A great deal of the reason there is an adversarial relationship between police and young people in low income communities is because of the drug war.

    Also, many people in low income communities feel they don't get respect from the authorities or from society in general. The drug war has a lot to do with that.

    It's true that gang killings would not disappear completely after legalization. However, it is very likely that gang activity itself would decrease.

  5. (I'm sorry – yet again – for the extra post; i didn't plan to do it this way)

    About 1. : Alcohol has been the most prevalent drug for hundreds of years, even thousands; way before any of the other drugs were made illegal. Many of those other drugs did exist before, but for whatever reason, no drug has ever enjoyed the level of widespread use that alcohol has (not that i know of). It is most likely, in my humble opinion, that it will always be that way.

  6. As stupidly ideological as Milton Friedman sometimes was, he would never have denied the Law of Demand: as price goes down, volume goes up. Most of the drug legalization argument relies on ignoring that basic regularity, or denying that it applies to drugs. The claim that heavy users' demand is inelastic is widely believed, but empirically false. Heavy users in particular are price-sensitive because they spend such a large fraction of their incomes on their chosen drugs.

  7. My point was that by using the phrase "the drug legalization argument" and centering your response on the example of legalized alcohol leading to more death and damage, you lose site of the very real differences between types of substances. Your implicit conclusion that American society's experience with legalized alcohol will be replicated with other drugs falls apart once we take into account the very real differences (in toxicity, dependence, cultural tolerance, and so on) between alcohol and other substances that might be legalized.

  8. Please read the article I criticized. It argues that prohibiting drugs costs lives, without differentiating among drugs. Yes, it would be plausible to legalize cannabis, though I'd want to do so on a non-commercial basis. But it's not the cannabis market that's filling the prisons and the morgues. To reduce the crime related to drug prohibition, you'd have to legalize cocaine (including crack), not cannabis. And no one has ever presented a detailed credible plan for doing so without allowing an explosion in cocaine use.

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