Friday, February 29, 2008

Heads vs. Feds on the South Plains: Is it time to seriously debate legalizing marijuana?

It's a debate that's happening in the heartland, but not on the campaign trail.

Lubbock locals filled the Allen theater at Texas Tech recently to hear a debate billed as "Heads vs. Feds," featuring an editor from High Times magazine, of all places, and an ex-DEA offical. The event was moderated by Tech law professor Arnold Loewy, who wrote about it in yesterday's Avalanche Journal. Loewy said that the gentleman from the DEA:
only discussed the harm that marijuana does. He did not discuss the harm that laws against marijuana cause.

Indeed, at one point, he recounted the tragic tale of a DEA agent killed in the line of duty by a mafia-affiliated drug pusher. He then used this story as an illustration of the harm that drugs do. This was a mischaracterization. Drugs did not cause the death of this agent. Laws against drugs caused his death. Government agents are not usually killed enforcing alcohol or tobacco regulations.

So, to my mind, in assessing whether we should decriminalize drugs, the question is whether the cost of drugs being criminal harms society more than the drugs themselves. In my judgment it does.

Let's look at some of the harm caused by the criminalization of drugs. A brief but incomplete catalogue includes the death of law enforcement officers, gang turf wars over drug territories, drug pushers trying to hook teenagers with "free samples" to ensure a continuing clientele, overcrowded prisons populated substantially with drug dealers and users, insufficient prison space for long-term sentences for violent offenders and a substantial increase in crime by users who have to turn to prostitution, robbery, and even murder to obtain money to afford drugs because of the inflated prices charged by criminals.

I believe these costs are worse than the cost of drugs being legal.
It's amazing to me that they could attract so many in Lubbock for that debate ("thousands of students" attended, the paper reported); that tells me folks are hungry for a more honest exchange on drug policy.

Recently US drug czar John Walters said Mexican officials told him marijuana sales are the backbone of drug cartel revenues, financing murders and gang wars south of the border in increasingly shocking numbers. Reported AP, "Walters made the comments following a meeting with Mexican officials who want the U.S. to prosecute marijuana cases more zealously to reduce the amount of cash gangs can spend on guns."

So at the end of the day, which is worse? Letting Coors and Budweiser take over pot distribution and regulating it like alcohol, or arming violent gangs with profits from a plant that many users would probably grow at home for free if you let them!

At the risk of being forever labeled a "legalizer," I agree with Prof. Loewy that for marijuana, the costs of legalization - arming violent, murderous gangs with high-powered weapons, groups who are already training and arming teenage assassins on the US side of the border - far outweigh any benefits from current marijuana policies. For harder drugs the arguments are stronger for prohibition (though from an economist's perspective, still debatable), and less likely to gain a consensus. I'm a big fan of the harm reduction approach in Vancouver that I've written about before, and think that on harder drugs that's the direction we need to head first. But clearly what we're doing now isn't working, and we can't afford to just expand funding for the same failed strategies.

I don't believe we can arrest our way out of America's drug problem, especially for pot. If the drug czar is correct that marijuana is the backbone of drug cartel profits and directly financing the expansion of their armory, at what point does the debate in Lubbock need to expand to the state and national stage? Will we wait until Mexican/Colombian-style violence engulfs Laredo, or El Paso? San Antonio? Dallas? At what point, I wonder, will this country ever take the obvious step of just turning off the marijuana money spigot?

RELATED: To any economist, all these problems were obvious years ago (which is why the late Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley supported legalizing pot). As evidence, here's an oldie but a goodie, a half-hour talk by Harvard economist Jeff Miron, one of Friedman's economist collaborators. The speech is from 2000, but if he'd made the same presentation this week in Lubbock, it would have been utterly current. Take a half hour to give it a listen, perhaps over the weekend, to hear Miron expertly dissect the economics of prohibition. Via Greg Mankiw:


Anonymous said...

Great writing. Great story.

My anti prohibition story often follow a familiar pattern. Highlight drug war absurdity and talk about externalities caused by Prohibition.

I feel we have to keep repeating the same arguments because they are logically and factually correct.

Thanks for continuing this important conversation.

Anonymous said...

Anything done to excess can be harmful. Should the Feds criminalize eating because the nation is overweight?

It is long past time to legalize and regulate marijuana use.

Brave Sir Robin said...

Great post, (and great site - I just found it today, and it's going on my blogroll)

Anonymous said...

At the very least, decriminalization should be on the minds of law makers. This would make marijuana possession a ticketed offense rather than one warranting an arrest. It would give officers more time to spend on real offenders rather than having to spend x amount of time booking someone for pot.

Anonymous said...

For the second time this week, Grits features the goings-on in the Hub and likewise raises the white flag of defeat (red light cameras) snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. lol


Gritsforbreakfast said...

Yup, Plato - if it weren't for me, Lubbock would reign, victorious! :)

Anonymous said...

I suppose the State of Texas could go into the wholesale marijuana business where they buy from local producers or import the stuff. Then they could tax it and sell it to retailers. If they kept the tax low enough it would not be profitable to smuggle marijuana to avoid the tax.

That would involve a whole lot of folks changing their minds about how best to deal with marijuana. The model for this is the system used to sell alcohol in various states and it does not eliminate alcohol abuse instead it eliminates a large source of income for criminals.

Anonymous said...

People want to get high. If MJ is deregulated, they'll use it as well as other drugs. As I once heard a person say "If you could get high on Brillo Pads, they're wouldn't be a clean pot tonight in Cincinatti."


Gritsforbreakfast said...

Plato, that's a pretty racy opinion you're sporting there for a bona fide, corrections professional! :)

Anonymous said...

Pretty "racy," Grits, but it has the extra added benefit of being true!


Anonymous said...

"Is it time to seriously debate legalizing marijuana?"

Yes. It certainly is.

Anonymous said...

Alright so we legalize pot. I'd agree that while not harmless it is less harmful than alcohol.

But what would really change as far as the violence and all, if you don't make everything legal? Meth, heroin, coke, what would change?

Anonymous said...

The real question is how deeply in bed the drug enforcement institutions are with the same organized crime outfits that profit from prohibition.
You can't really think that Czar Walters actually believes what he's saying. He's just trying to fool YOU, the American Person, because he thinks you are an idiot. Please prove you are not.