One of the most interesting by-products of the current economic turmoil has been resurgent debate over the merits of our present drug laws. In particular, as state coffers run dry with deficits, new cost benefit analyses have been evaluating the potential benefits of liberalizing drug codes. In New York, the state legislature recently voted overwhelmingly to roll back the infamous John D. Rockefeller drug laws of the 1970’s, which compelled judges to hand out strict jail time for any crime involving drugs—violent or otherwise. Two weeks ago, California State Assembly member Tony Ammiano introduced The Marijuana Control, Regulation and Education Act, a proposal that would legalize Marijuana, regulate its sale and allow the state government to tax the product on the open market. According to California’s tax collectors, such a measure would provide about $1.3 billion in new revenue (a Guardian piece claims the figure to be $13 billion). Finally, the venerable Economist magazine even weighed in, offering their view on drug legalization’s effect on crime, public health and the global economy:
Legalisation would not only drive away the gangsters; it would transform drugs from a law-and-order problem into a public-health problem, which is how they ought to be treated. Governments would tax and regulate the drug trade, and use the funds raised (and the billions saved on law-enforcement) to educate the public about the risks of drug-taking and to treat addiction. The sale of drugs to minors should remain banned. Different drugs would command different levels of taxation and regulation. This system would be fiddly and imperfect, requiring constant monitoring and hard-to-measure trade-offs. Post-tax prices should be set at a level that would strike a balance between damping down use on the one hand, and discouraging a black market and the desperate acts of theft and prostitution to which addicts now resort to feed their habits.
I think it’s time the United States finally grew up with respect to its drug policy. Our legal code is still mired in the 1968 fantasy that marijuana is exclusively consumed among Bolshevik poets living in the East Village. Let’s get real. More than 94 million Americans, or 40%, have tried Marijuana at least once, including the last three presidents, the Mayor of New York City, and the most dominant Olympian of our generation. More people support Marijuana legalization than currently support President Obama’s stimulus plan.
The economics of the issue speak for themselves. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron recently estimated that legalizing drugs would “inject $76.8 billion a year into the U.S. economy — $44.1 billion through savings on law enforcement and at least $32.7 billion in tax revenues from regulated sales.” And before you dismiss Miron’s findings as the work of some dissident leftist academic, check out his views on the current bailout. Even many on the Right have conceded a connection between present drug laws and reckless government spending. I can’t even begin to delve into the wealth of evidence clearly indicating that Marijuana has numerous and legitimate medicinal benefits.
The simple fact is that our government spends hundreds of billions of dollars to perpetuate a fallacious and archaic myth: that drugs, from black tar heroin to pot, are antithetical to industrious, god fearing Americans. Avoiding a 21st century debate over the merits of Marijuana’s prohibition is one of the most unfortunate relics of the Nixon era’s war on the commie-homo-liberal-east coast “other” standing against the “establishment” (i.e., the Vietnam War). God forbid the high school quarterback, college educated, father of three with the white picket fence smoked weed in college—only welfare queens in Harlem engage in such behavior!
However, as 40% of the country can attest, public consciousness has begun to shift. Americans have come to realize that “drug use” has migrated from the Haight and Ashbury Streets to Main Street. I recognize there are genuine differences between the chemistry of Marijuana and other, stronger substances. I also accept that a federally controlled drug market, from pot to more powerful drugs, would offer numerous systemic (and social) challenges. However, I think it’s high time (no pun intended) to look at the facts, finally drop our juvenile pretensions about drugs in America, and foster a serious dialogue about reforming our broken and delusional drug laws.