July 13, 2008

Update On The War On Drugs

Pot. Ganga. Weed. Chronic. Cannabis. The Sacrament. Hash. Skunk. Dope. Bud. Roach. Four-Twenty. Doobage. Reefer. Grass. Herb. Wacky Tobacci. Mary Jane. The list of euphemisms is thousands of entries long, but you know what I'm talking about -- marijuana, that ubiquitous scourge of modern civilization. Well, "scourge" may not be so accurate, it's sure as hell ubiquitous.

Turns out, your average American is more likely to have tried pot than your average Dutchman, or indeed any person of any other nationality on the planet. So much for the idea that legalization necessarily creates greater use of the stuff -- pot's been legal in "coffee houses" in Holland for decades, but you're more likely to have sampled the stuff if you live here in the States, where it is (theoretically) illegal.

I don't use pot. I've smoked it once -- I took a hit from a friend's spliff at a party back in school, and immediately got a splitting headache and experienced no pleasure at all. I haven't had any interest or curiosity since. But obviously, some people do get high from smoking it, even if I apparently lack the skill necessary to smoke pot right.

But even though I don't use pot, it seems that the fervent legalization advocates (who all, it seems, actually do use it regularly despite the nominal illegality of the substance) have got basically all the cards in their favor if you look at the issue rationally. Smoking pot is really not any more harmful than smoking tobacco -- yeah, smoking a lot of it can make you kind of dumb, and people who do nothing with their lives but smoke pot and talk about how great smoking pot is are both tedious and annoying. But query if such a habitual pot-smoker was all that smart or interesting to begin with. I know several people who spark up occasionally and are very, very intelligent and quick-witted.

That's not to say that it's good for you (in most cases) to smoke pot; but it's not good to smoke cigarettes or to drink alcohol, either. Nor would I believe anyone who said it wasn't addictive. I might believe someone who used it but claimed to not be addicted. But here's the big question -- so what? What business is it of the government's to tell you whether you can smoke it in the first place? I agree that in theory the government has the power to regulate or ban it, but the government theoretically has the power to nationalize residential housing, or to criminalize the consumption of cheeseburgers. That wouldn't make doing those things either sound public policy, an affordable undertaking, or more importantly, the right thing for a government of supposedly free people to do.

And I know perfectly well that "medical marijuana prescriptions" are in most cases simply bullshit scrips that candyman doctors write because they know that pot is no more harmful than anything legal their patients might consume. It doesn't take too much shopping for doctors to find a candyman, and in the grand scheme of things, a marijuana scrip is probably less harmful than some of the other prescriptions for "legal" drugs to which doctors get their patients addicted.

In the meantime, the Federal government spends about thirteen billion of dollars a year trying to inderdict the cultivation, importation, distribution, and consumption of illegal drugs, including marijuana. That money could be either diverted to other uses (whether law enforcement or otherwise) or better yet simply cut out of the budget altogether so as to reduce the deficit. We get some interesting information as a result of all that money -- for instance, we learn that the largest national cultivator and producer of marijuana is (drum roll, please) the United States, that marijuana is the largest cash crop produced in the United States as measured in both overall production and profitability, that THC content (that is to say, quality as measured in the form of potency) is increasing, and that global production increases even as global demand declines. So there is more of the stuff than there ever has been before, and it's getting cheaper all the time.

What this tells me is that trying to stop the marijuana trade by outlawing it is a massive exercise in futility. Anyone who wants to get pot will be able to do so with remarkable ease and almost anyone can afford to smoke. I don't know the street price of the stuff (like I say, I'm not a user) but considering that a lot of people with limited economic means find a way to buy and smoke the stuff, it can't be that much more expensive than tobacco or liquor, for which there always seems to be enough money.

And we have an instructive example of what happens when a substance that is the subject of such high demand and low cost is banned -- Prohibition. Booze became cheaper and more plentiful when it was criminalized in the 1920's. The same thing has happened with illegal drugs, particularly with pot.

Legalization would not solve every drug-related problem. It would replace our existing problems with a new set of different problems. But I'm no longer convinced that one of those problems would be a permanent increase in consumption of the stuff. Anyone who wants it gets it and smokes it already. And I'm also confident that we have a social and governmental infrastructure that can at least tackle, if not control, the problems that legalization would create -- we have the ability to control and tax the manufacture and sale of tobacco, for instance, so some interdiction money could be diverted to expanding those resources as marijuana moved off the street corners and into the 7-11 to be sold alongside the Marlboros.

We'd be better off if we stopped trying to criminalize the stuff and instead worked with and not against the market. Because the market is going to win every time.

No comments: