Last Update: 26 Feb 00
Return to "Drugs" essay
REPLY #9 TO
(R) Again applause for your site. I wrote reply #1 to your drugs essay quite some time ago, and now I want to follow it up -- in particular, to address some of the points you raised in your response.
(MB) That's the whole purpose of this forum. Fire away!
(R) First, you claim that there is no evidence that prices of drugs would drop if they were legalized. This is false -- while we do not have a 'legal-illegal-legal' sequence in this country, as you point out, other countries (particularly the Netherlands) have.
(MB) As I have pointed out in other replies, it is difficult to make a meaningful comparison between different countries with widely differing societal values and customs. What might work in the Netherlands may well be a dismal failure here in the United States (and vice-versa). One must also consider the respective influences of organized crime on the drug production and distribution systems between those two countries.
(R) And it is indeed true that drug prices drop when drugs are legal. I also do not mean to imply that all drug-related crime would disappear if the price were to drop. As an economist, I would never make any such categorical claim. But I think it's fairly clear that if a habit costs $10 a day instead of $300, the addict will not need to commit nearly so many crimes -- if any at all -- to support it.
(MB) That goes without saying. However, there are other factors to consider. First, control of the drug distribution system in the US is in the hands of folks who are likely not to be too keen on reducing prices by significant amounts -- especially when their customer base seems rather willing to pay the going rates. Also, a drop in prices does not mean that demand will remain at its current levels. It's reasonable to project that current users may increase their usage if costs should drop. It's also reasonable to project that new users will enter the market upon legalization and/or price drops. Both of those cases will serve to increase demand and keep prices from taking drastic plunges.
(R) Or, in your words, even if 'you're still going to have to turn to crime to keep yourself supplied,' you will have to do so much less often. Again, we have the experience of other countries to look at here -- the incidence of drug-related crime in countries with more open drug policies is typically far smaller than it is here.
(MB) I think you'll find that the rates of practically *all* types of crime are lower in those countries. Again, societal differences between countries make direct comparisons difficult.
(R) Your point about the differences between 19th-century drug use and contemporary drug use is circular, since the methods in which users satisfy their habits today ('mainlining in a back alley') are a direct result of drug laws.
(MB) I think you're mixing two arguments. My main comments about 19th-century drug use were directed towards the lower potency of the substances in those days. The "back alley" comments were in response to an argument defending drug use since "British nobility used opium during the 19th century". Doing drugs in a back alley has little to do with the legality or illegality of the substance being used. It has more to do with the individual doing the drugs. Even in the "Drug Utopia" of the Netherlands, we find patterns of drug use very similar to those here in the US. British nobility are just rich enough to have decent places in which to indulge.
(R) In fact, consider opium. During the early part of the century, opium was popular among both whites and Chinese immigrants. The difference was that whites liked to eat it, and Chinese people liked to smoke it. The first opium laws prohibited only the smoking of opium. As a result, the orderly, inoffensive opium dens in Chinese neighborhoods on the West Coast fell into disrepair, and opium smokers were forced into 'back alleys.'
(MB) This is little more than reinforcement of what I said in the previous paragraph. Rich folks could indulge in comfort, while poor folks (the ones most likely to have patronized the opium dens in the first place) had to go elsewhere.
(R) Similarly, the speakeasy -- an equally illicit setting -- came into existence only after Prohibition. Now, of course, seedy speakeasies are a thing of the past, as alcohol drinkers may drink without fear of the police.
(MB) Of course, legal or not, alcohol has always had a much different social value and has been much more acceptable than drug use.
(R) Also, your point about marijuana's relative potency is a mere assertion, since scientists have only been measuring marijuana potency since the mid-70's. Therefore, any claims about 'increasing marijuana potency' are pure speculation, not fact. (This, of course, does not deter the Drug Enforcement Administration and its related agencies from claiming otherwise.)
(MB) This is not correct. Scientists may only have had the technical means to measure precise THC levels for a few decades, but marijuana users most certainly do not need to know the exact measurement of THC levels in a joint to know whether or not it is "good" or to compare relative strength levels. Anybody can verify this by examining the wild hemp that still grows in many parts of the country and comparing it with the derivative varieties that have been crossbred in this century to provide more potency.
(R) Two more points, and then I will shut up.
(R) First, you mention in another reply that we need to keep the relevant costs and benefits of drug prohibition in mind. I agree, but only to an extent (since I think people have the right to do as they please with themselves, including ruin their own lives).
(MB) I agree that people have the right to do as they please with their lives. However, that right ends when their pleasure adversely affects somebody else's life. That is a basic precept in our legal system and something that often goes ignored or is brushed aside in the wake of myopic focus on "individual rights".
(R) But consider the costs of the war on drugs. First, the financial costs. The price of extra police and federal prisons is low ($15 billion) compared to the lost tax revenues from incarcerated drug users, of which there are over 1 million. Those costs together total, by a number of independent estimates, over $150 billion per year.
(MB) This ignores the fact that *everybody* who is in prison -- whether for drug violations or not -- is somebody who is not on the tax rolls. It also ignores the costs that society incurs when these folks are on the outside indulging in their habit. I think that those costs are far greater than any lost taxes.
(R) That doesn't even count the direct costs of drug-related crime, which I have earlier argued would fall. $150 billion is a lot of money. And it is worth asking what that money has bought. Law enforcement officials are incapable of keeping our prisons drug-free. How on earth can we expect them to keep the whole country drug-free?
(MB) We can't. It takes a combination of education, enforcement, and societal change to accomplish that goal. It can't all be laid at the feet of the legal system. Making drugs legal will not reduce or eliminate any drug-related problems other than the number of drug users in prison.
(R) There are also legal and constitutional costs. In California, rapists and murderers are routinely freed to make room in the prisons for marijuana users (see the Families Against Mandatory Minimums site for evidence on this point), ever since the 'three strikes, you're out' law started forcing judges to put away pot smokers.
(MB) That is an absolutely ridiculous policy, but the blame shouldn't rest on enforcement of drug laws. I'm wondering how a direct effect can be produced here since violent criminals like rapists and murderers wouldn't be incarcerated in the same facilities as people busted for marijuana possession. Consider also that if you get busted three times for the same offense and know about the "three strikes" law, who's really at fault when the judge must send you to prison? Disagreeing with the law is no excuse.
(R) The explosive growth in wiretapping, police search powers, and asset forfeiture laws is a direct result of the war on drugs.
(MB) "Explosive growth"? This sounds like "police state" paranoia. Police can't get approval for wiretaps, searches, or seizures without first demonstrating probable cause. That means that evidence of a crime must already be present. If crimes are being committed, why shouldn't the police do their jobs and investigate them for the purposes of arresting the guilty parties?
(R) Asset forfeiture is a scary thing -- if the police even suspect that my car or home was used in a drug deal (by anyone, including any previous owner), they can seize it. It is then my responsibility to show them otherwise -- neatly reversing the principle of 'innocent until proven guilty.'
(MB) This is a law directed at dealers -- not simple user -- and falls within the same rules I referred to in the preceding paragraph. There must still be a "guilty" verdict returned in a court trial before any seizure is permanent.
(R) There are groups and web sites devoted to raising awareness about asset forfeiture laws, which I encourage you and your readers to have a look at.
(MB) I don't doubt that there are abuses of this system. However, that does not justify abolition of those laws. Most of the complaints are groundless and seek to protect the "innocent" drug dealer against the "police state".
(R) But the point there is that they are a direct outgrowth of the war on drugs.
(MB) Since that's the whole point of the laws in the first place, I don't see where this is saying a whole lot. No drug dealers, no need for those laws.
(R) Similarly, one can credibly argue that the drug war has undermined the US Constitution -- not only by providing a rationale to erode the Fourth Amendment, but simply because of its existence.
(MB) This argument can be made -- but not successfully. If there was any validity to it, the Supreme Court would have affirmed it long ago.
(R) Congress passed a constitutional amendment to ban the sale of alcohol. It didn't bother to do so with the drugs that are now illegal (and federally so). What does that say about the general attitude about the Constitution fostered by the drug war -- especially since most people support it?
(MB) It does not require a constitutional amendment for the Congress to make the manufacture, sale, use or possession of something illegal. Congress has the authority to pass laws to protect the general welfare of the public. This means that the drug war is entirely within the bounds of Constitutional law and says more about the people who oppose it than about those who support it.
(R) Finally, a short comment about the role of government in general. You repeatedly argue that since drugs serve no useful purpose they should be outlawed.
(MB) No, I argue that they should be outlawed since any "benefits" of drug use are greatly outweighed by the harm they cause to the public. If there was no harm produced by their use, there would be no reason to ban them.
(R) I take the view that people know themselves best, and that they therefore be allowed to make such decisions about what things serve useful purposes by themselves.
(MB) That's a fine sentiment and would work well in a Utopian society. Unfortunately, we don't live in such a society. Real life is a place where innocent people are adversely affected by the poor personal decisions made by others. Since we have decided that our legal system must protect the general welfare of the public, there will be occasions where some personal freedoms must be restricted or banned in order to further the system's overall goal.
(R) And even if they don't know best, it is their families, teachers, friends, and mentors who do -- and who ought to be helping them make such decisions.
(MB) I agree entirely. Unfortunately, when that job isn't being done sufficiently, other measures must be taken. Consider that if education was perfect, we'd have no crimes of any kind being committed and there would be no need for prisons. Our laws must step in when education fails or is ignored.
(R) Government bureaucrats and politicians should be the very last people to make those decisions for us, yet investing them with the power to prosecute the war on drugs has allowed them to usurp our autonomy.
(MB) Again, there would have been no need for the "war on drugs" if there were no problems resulting from drug use that the general public did not demand be dealt with. The government didn't just arbitrarily decide to start that "war". The blame properly belongs on those who choose to break the laws, not with those charged with enforcing them.
(R) I think the long-term costs of that development outweigh any reasonable estimate of the benefits of prohibition.
(MB) I guess our disagreement here resides in where we place the focus of this issue. I place it with the welfare of the general public. Those who favor drug legalization tend to place the individual foremost. (Star Trek fans will recognize that I support the Vulcan philosophy which states, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one"). I think that there is little question that our society would be *far* better off if drug use would disappear entirely than if it was fully legalized.
(R) Once again, congratulations on your site. Best regards to you!
(MB) Thanks! I have enjoyed reading and responding to your comments. I feel that such discussions are essential if we have any hope of solving problems or getting to the bottom of important issues.
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