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February 11, 2009

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I have been pushing for legalization since 73
Retired Sgt. Cal Lash

Glad that you've come around on this question, Jon (although I wasn't aware of your initial stance.)

9/11 and the ever-unfolding crisis that has been America since that day caused this activist to back off of the decrim movement - but I agree that the time is becoming ripe to hit it again. The costs of this policy, both human and economic, are indeed shameful.

(And thanks for your advocacy, Sgt. Lash - '73 was the year I smoked my first joint. Heh heh.)

I talked to a Chicago cop once who said marijuana legalization would be the one thing that would make his job safer. Why? Because illegalization drives up the cost and replaces it with far more dangerous street drugs like meth and crack.

This country cannot afford its pretense of virtue anymore than its pretense of omnipotence. What's killing us is media-generated Conventional Wisdom where certain subjects are off the table, perhaps because we prefer a few touchstones of consensus reality. This is the cowardice of nodding one's head while a news anchor dribbles out cliches of good and evil.

The war against the underclass is America's inversion of its own mythology. We marginalize them, then demonize them, and finally figure out a way to make a profit off our own hypocrisy. This smugness eventually evolved Sheriff Joe the and legions of dittoheads voting against poor people and for more prisons.

All of Jon's points and the previous commenters are good ones.

One additional thing that bugs me is the idea of special pleading. We tried to make alcohol illegal through Prohibition and decided we were wrong. If alcohol is OK today, then why are drugs wrong? Both cause the same conditions and create the same risks.

No argument for degree of intoxication or degree of habituation has convinced me that they require different legal standing.

I saw an article on another blog this morning that argues for Hindus to be exempt from helmet laws because they are not allowed to cover their turbans or not wear them. It was presented as relgious discrimination and they wanted an exception to the law. This is parallel to us allowing alcohol but banning drugs.

Both situations show that the laws are inadequate as written. What we need to do is re-evaluate the law and why we have it.

In the case of helmet laws we are trying to force people to be safe. A better (more rational, more adult) approach would be to legally acknowledge personal responsibility. Insurance rates should be different for those who wear helmets (or seatbelts for that matter). Responsibilities for accidents should be allocated based on use and non-use of safety equipment. They are already doing it on the basis of unsafe actions such as running red lights and speeding. Non use of helmets is also an unsafe action.

Similarly, if drug or alcohol use is a factor, the user takes responsibility for that use and its consequences.

After all, those who speculate in the stock market know the risks and have to take their losses (wait, bad example).

The remaining issue is how to handle children. It is reasonable for society to protect children from irresponsible parents. I won't try to solve that one right here and now.

I didn't see a good place to mention this earlier, but I believe that everyone should wear a seatbelt or a helmet, but I also think it should not be a legal requirement.

I don't drink or use drugs but I don't think it should be against the law.

I don't think I should have to pay for the consequences of your stupidity but you should have the right to act stupid.

Existing laws on public behavior, intoxication and special behavior (such as driving) already cover everything we need. Calling out special uses is discriminatory or lazy.

This is an issue I find myself flip-flopping on, a bit. Perhaps I haven't really made up my mind.

One thing that probably has to be admitted is that in order to compete with the drug cartels, drugs will need to be made widely available (at least to adults) and a whole industry will need to be set up to take advantage of scale in manufacturing, distribution, and sales. Common sense suggests that this will result in significantly increased use.

The Chinese fought the Opium Wars against the British to stop the British from importing opium INTO China, after an increase in addicts. According to one online article on the Opium Wars (Wikipedia), "British exports of opium to China grew from an estimated fifteen tons in 1730 to 75 tons in 1773". And this was before modern production, distribution and marketing methods, and in the face of determined domestic attacks on the drug trade by the Chinese emperor.

The end of Prohibition in America broke organized crime's hold on the alcohol industry, but now booze is available at every grocery store, convenience mart, drug-store, liquor store, Wal-Mart, etc.; in short, on nearly every street corner. Banning the advertisement of legalized narcotics, and other controls, may well prevent a similar situation, but use can still be expected to spike.

Remember, we live in a largely secular, individualistic, sensation-seeking, and hedonistic culture. What will keep drug abuse in check once legal consequences are eliminated and social use becomes more broadly and more overtly accepted by some subcultures?

Regarding alcohol vs. drugs, with limited exceptions, the only ones who have problems using alcohol responsibly are alcoholics; and many of them remain somewhat functional.

I don't think the same thing can be said --certainly not to the same degree -- of opiates, cocaine (especially in its already ultra-cheap and highly addictive smoked form, crack), or meth. We all know the stereotype of the opium addict lying in a daze in a smoker's den for days at a stretch; certainly meth users and some other addicts get high for days on end and live drugs as a lifestyle. Alcohol abuse, whether chronic or acute, seldom produces symptoms mistaken for mental illness, for example, except in withdrawal. The same cannot be said of crack-heads.

For example, will we change employment laws to ban discrimination against narcotics users? Even if we do, is a crack addict or a heroin addict going to be able to maintain a steady job? If not, where will he get the money to pay, not only for his drugs (which after all must cost something, even if legalized) but also to pay his rent, buy food, make car payments, and so forth?

Or will addicts resort to burglary and other property crimes, as is commonly the case now? And if so, what will that do to property crime rates if addiction rates significantly increase? Will addicts be able to support themselves as small-time dealers after the transition to a legalized setting?

Paying farmers to grow products other than opium poppies or cocaine plants sounds like common sense and a bargain compared to "drug war" spending. However, there are a lot of poor farmers in the world, and I suppose the possibility of drug cartels changing over to them must be considered. Can we afford to pay all of the world's poor third-world farmers not to grow these drugs?

And who is going to force the impoverished, drug growing, third world farmers, to sell these crops to legalized producers for less than what the drug cartels (whose profits are higher) are willing and able to pay?

For that matter, who is going to protect them from vengeful cartels angry that they are selling to their "competitors"? After all, the cartels need only attack the weakest points in the legalized supply chain in order to disrupt it. Or are we going to set up our own drug farming operations here in the states, with armed guards 24/7? What happens when the employees of privately owned, legal drug producing and distributing firms, get shot, have their houses blown up, etc? Will business continue as usual or will they be intimidated? And what happens to violent crime rates in the event of a drug war between the cartels and the private legal companies?

How will the price of legalized narcotics be determined? What is to prevent legalized private producers from taking the highest profit they can get from addicts? What will this do to the affordability of such drugs?

Will narcotics be cheaper than today's medicinal pharmaceuticals? Have you priced prescription drugs lately? At present, the latter are affordable only to the extent that public and private health care and insurance underwrites the profits demanded by the pharmaceutical firms and other parasites in the health-care delivery chain. Will we alter insurance laws to do the same for legalized narcotics? If not, how will they be affordable? Or will "recreational" narcotics be produced by government owned non-profits at taxpayer expense?

Are narcotics going to be untaxed, unlike tobacco and alcohol; and if they are taxed, what will this do to the price of legalized narcotics vis a vis black market narcotics? Remember, in all of this price is a factor in undermining competition from the established black market run by illegal drug cartels.

Emil Pulsifer:

That is an excellent rundown of the prevailing questions and objections about relaxing drug prohibition. I'd first like to thank you for this thoughtful comment, and secondly I (humbly) hope I can address some of these thoughts.

I think that concerns raised that the end of prohibition might increase drug use are overblown. Anyone with a night life - and many who don't - have easy access to illicit drugs. The quantity of drugs currently consumed is enormous (ponder the fact, BTW, that if these drugs were as damaging as portrayed, then American society should be crippled twice over by now. OK - no wisecracks :). I feel that bringing drugs under a regulatory umbrella would cripple a black market - a black market that has no "We Card Everyone" ethic - from its youthful recruits.

"Remember, we live in a largely secular, individualistic, sensation-seeking, and hedonistic culture. What will keep drug abuse in check once legal consequences are eliminated and social use becomes more broadly and more overtly accepted by some subcultures?"

I see your lens, but I argue that legal consequences, right now, are of a lesser influence than the popular culture, and the "advertisements" in the popular media (TV, movies, etc.) What I think is that these concerns are weak tea in the face of the great social harm caused by prohibition. From creating a space for lucrative illegal behaviour to introducing hundreds of thousands of non-violent "offenders" to the penal system.

"We all know the stereotype of the opium addict lying in a daze in a smoker's den for days at a stretch...

"Regarding alcohol vs. drugs, with limited exceptions, the only ones who have problems using alcohol responsibly are alcoholics; and many of them remain somewhat functional..."

Um, "sterotype" is the word doing all of the heavy lifting in that segment, EP. I'm proud to say that I've consorted with all sorts of folks of various moral concern, and I have to say that while, yes, there is the occasional loon who feeds the "drug abuser" stereotype, the truth of the matter is that the vast majority of drug users - I do not call us abusers - are quite modulated and responsible. Hence my earlier point that this country would be finished if drugs were so nefarious, given our national consumption rate. As it is for alcohol, which is a far more dangerous drug - for the user, and for the people around the user. There are as many, if not more, "functional" drug users in our midst as there are "functional" drinkers.

Finally, concerns that the black market will continue to somehow complete with a legal, regulated outlet for drugs are unfounded. The black market only operates in a supply vacuum. The rum-runners of Prohibition are not peddling airplane bottles of Smirnoff on the playground for pocket-change these days. Risk / return? Not so good.

Again, thank you again for taking the time to express your sincere concerns. I hope I've been able to provide some food for thought.

And I hope Jon doesn't mind my lengthy riposte on his thread! :)

Cheers, and all the best,

Petro

If we put money now being lethally wasted on ineffectual enforcement into treatment for addicts and better educational and economic opportunities, we'd do better.

But this would go against the ugly ideological authoritarian strain of American culture, especially prevalent in the Republican Party, that worships force and hoses down the Pentagon and the profitable police/prisons/surveillance Security State with money while screaming 'socialism' about pennies for treatment programs, education and such.

Any political discussion has to fight against the King Tide of Stupid holding this country hostage, the small group with a noisy megaphone that clutches its pearls about Janet Jackson's boob on TV for a split second and would go nuclear (or, perhaps in their terminology, 'nookyular') with rants of 'immorality' and imploring Jeebus to save them at the suggestion of drug legalization.

Throughout time there are people who abuse whatever substances are available. Some of these people go too far for their own good and that tends to affect others. Identifying them and providing treatment for addiction and preventing the harm they might do are things that society can do.

Calling out a specific method of intoxication is unnecessary.

Creating laws to prevent the actions that (sometimes) lead to the crimes is both lazy and wrong.

We might as well outlaw automobiles because some people hit pedistrians.

There is a definite generational demarcation where public attitudes toward legalization are concerned. Once the Racist...uh I mean...Greatest Generation dies off much of the Reefer Madness nonsense will go with it. Speaking of which, it's important to note that not all drugs are equal and I noticed a tendency to lump all of them together in both Jon's original post and some of the responses. Marijuana is not on the same planet as crystal meth, in terms of the harm caused to users and there is a reasonable debate to be had over legalizing some currently illegal substances (like pot) vs. blanket decriminalization of all drugs.

Which leads me into what I consider to be the most tiresome argument against legalizing pot: that it's a "gateway drug". It's no more a gateway to heroin than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are. That is, one can claim that most heroin addicts have used pot at some time and I will respond by pointing out that most heroin addicts have eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at some time. The gateway argument is so logically absurd that a 5 year old can see through it but Drug Warriors will make it with a straight face every time the prospect of legalizing pot is raised. If pot functions as a gateway at all, it is most likely due to the fact that you have to buy it on the same black market as harder drugs. When I buy a bottle of wine at Safeway the cashier doesn't try to push heroin on me.

Actually one of the strongest arguments for drug legalization appeared in a paragraph in today's NY Times:

"The Obama administration has been distancing itself from Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, with officials complaining that he has not done enough to crack down on corruption and the drug trade that has fueled the Taliban insurgency."

Quite frankly, I really loathe the Taliban. They are the world's dirtiest bunch of bastards. How will they fund themselves without the black market for drugs? The US should grow poppies with one hand and offer rehabilitation to addicts with the other. If it helps destroy the Taliban, I am all for it.

Here is the permalink to the article:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/12/world/asia/12prexy.html

Miscellaneous replies:

I agree that marijuana is in a different category than the other drugs I mentioned. That is why I didn't once mention marijuana.

If marijuana is a gateway drug then so is alcohol, even more so since most kids' first experimentation with mood-altering substances is beer and liquor, which leads in turn to more tolerant consideration of marijuana experimentation.

The Taliban, when it was in power, actually succeeded in suppressing Afghanistan's opium trade, unlike everyone else that's tried and failed. It is only in fighting against the occupation forces of the West that it has seen fit to use drugs as a method of financing its operations. (No, don't jump to the conclusion from this language that I am pro-Taliban. I am simply stating the facts as baldly as I can.)

Note this New York Times article from 2001:

"The unexpected success of the Taliban in Afghanistan in eradicating three-quarters of the world's crop of opium poppies in one season is leading experts to ask where production is likely to spring up next. . . The reduction is probably the most dramatic event in the history of illegal drug markets, not only in scale, but also in the fact that it was done domestically, without international assistance."

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C03E4DC113EF930A25755C0A9679C8B63

Petro says: "Anyone with a night life - and many who don't - have easy access to illicit drugs."

Well, maybe. Personally I don't have a clue who sells it or where it is sold. If I were an idiot I guess I could ask around until somebody (user, dealer, or cop) gave me a helpful pointer.

Petro says: "I argue that legal consequences, right now, are of a lesser influence than the popular culture."

I argue that most individuals don't take the prospect of a felony arrest and prison time lightly. I also argue that legal taboos condition society's social values. There already exists a drug subculture, but this can only be widened when those whose values or concerns are conditioned by the legal ramifications, no longer have that authority influencing their behavior (whether through fear or moral suasion, or a combination).

Petro says he doesn't see how a black market can compete after legalization. I've tried to point out why a legalized market faces logistical and economic problems in even getting market share, much less wiping out the drug cartels. And don't forget that booze is cheap because it is widespread. Obviously bathtub gin and moonshine distillers cannot compete with large scale mass manufacturing concerns, and unlike drug cartels they can't, as a practical matter, base their supply chain outside the country and smuggle their product in.

I don't think that legalization of hard drugs has a chance of succeeding. If you think turf battles between competing drug cartels along Mexico's border are brutal, just wait until you try to deprive them of the United States as a market. It will be a fight to the bitter end. Meanwhile, the cartels still have their European profits to support their operations and attacks.

And guess what: if you think that the U.S. government became heavy handed regarding constitutional and civil rights after 9/11, you haven't seen anything until narco-terrorists wage a sustained battle against American industry (the legalized drug industry) and its civilian employees. I can't think of a better way to hasten in friendly fascism than to legalize hard drugs and wait for the ever escalating violence and the law and order response to it.

Emil:

"And guess what: if you think that the U.S. government became heavy handed regarding constitutional and civil rights after 9/11, you haven't seen anything until narco-terrorists wage a sustained battle against American industry (the legalized drug industry) and its civilian employees. I can't think of a better way to hasten in friendly fascism than to legalize hard drugs and wait for the ever escalating violence and the law and order response to it."

Why can't the drug cartels simply begin trading their merchandise in the U.S. legally? Many a legitimate modern liquor distribution outfit in the U.S. got its start by bootlegging.


What Donna said.

And EP - the respectful manner in which you outline your disagreements is duly noted and very much appreciated. Cheers!

Donna wrote: "Many a legitimate modern liquor distribution outfit in the U.S. got its start by bootlegging."

I suspect that many of those liquor producers had already been in the business legally, pre-Prohibition. After Prohibition, while ostensibly converting factories to the manufacture of other products, they maintained facilities for dual production, probably operating the alcohol side at night. This was possible due to corruption, and the corruption was possible because of (a) the large amounts of money involved, and (b) the fact that many police and city officials may have been sympathetic, not being teetotalers themselves, and regarding the "dry" movement as a ludicrous and officious form of fanaticism.

Donna wrote: "Why can't the drug cartels simply begin trading their merchandise in the U.S. legally?"

This is a fascinating question.

First, it has to be understood that the drug cartels are not monolithic. Much (though not all) of the violence associated with illegal drugs involves conflicts between rivals, whether full scale turf wars between cartels or gangs, or small scale violence involving drug deals gone bad, opportunistic robberies of one dealer by another, and so forth. To the extent that relative stability exists, it is because rival gangs and cartels carve out geographic and other boundaries. Those boundaries are both created and maintained by violence.

So, you would have to convince these gangs and cartels to either amalgamate, or else to adopt a business model of competition. Competition in the drug trade is traditionally settled by violence. Will the losers (or expected losers) of a business model go quietly into that gentle night, saying, "oh well, it's only business -- now I'll just manufacture Tickle Me Elmo dolls instead" or will they resort to violence to disrupt their rivals' operations?

You also have to convince the cartels that they can at least maintain their current profit levels, otherwise what is the point of going legal?

Total profits = (profit per unit) X (number of units sold). Number of units sold = (total number of customers) X (units purchased per customer).

One of the main premises of legalization advocates is that by reducing the cost of (currently) illegal drugs, the profits of the cartels will evaporate and that addicts will be able to afford them without having to resort to burglary, theft, robbery, and other forms of property and/or violent crimes in order to buy them.

But using the formula above, the only way to maintain profits while dramatically decreasing unit cost is to dramatically increase the number of customers, and/or to dramatically increase consumption by the existing customer base.

There is also no reason to assume that simply because a product is legal, that it must be inexpensive or that the profit margin must be small. This is especially true in a highly regulated market (such as that supported by serious legalization advocates), where licensed producers constitute a monopoly or (at most) oligopoly.

According to recent New York Times articles, there is a glut of opium production relative to demand which should drop the bottom out of the market (i.e., lower the cost dramatically). But the market bottom hasn't dropped. The suspected answer is hoarding of stock (the Taliban is cited as the likely suspect).

Another example, involving a strictly legal product, is the diamond business. It's no longer a secret that diamonds are seriously overpriced. This resulted in large part from stock hoarding and other controls by DeBeers. However, even with somewhat increased "competition" from other companies in recent years, we haven't seen the bottom of the diamond market drop out. This is because all producers know a good thing when they see it. They still constitute an oligopolistic market, and there is absolutely no motive for them to cut each other's throats with a price war which reveals once and for all to the broad public just how overpriced diamonds are.

If, on the other hand, we allow a broader model of competition, then we come back to the question of maintaining profits, which is essential if the cooperation of the drug cartels is to be obtained. That means either a vast expansion of buyers (users/addicts), or else a zero-sum game in which all producers compete for a more or less fixed number of buyers. In the latter case, when one producer wins, another one loses market share and profits. Then we're back to the question of methods of settling competitive disputes, and violence by organized crime rears its ugly head again.

Note also that a prerequisite for companies to legally sell drugs, would be complete legal immunity from lawsuits. If lifetime smokers, despite information campaigns and broad public knowledge of the issues, can successfully file class action suits against tobacco companies, just imagine what would happen when users overdose, or become addicted, or suffer sudden, acute health problems, as a result of drug use? Have you seen the public service advertisements against meth use? If just one tenth of that kind of graphic physical degeneration is true, no company, whether American or newly formed by cartels, would dare sell the product without complete liability immunity.

Another aspect of the broader question of legalization is the goal of reducing social costs, including incarceration, police costs, and other criminal justice system costs. I agree that individuals who merely use drugs do not belong in prison, since the crime is one only against themselves (barring social costs like shared health care and insurance costs, which also apply to tobacco use, etc.).

I wonder, however, just how many individuals are serving jail or prison time solely for possession of personal amounts of hard drugs, without having committed auxilliary crimes of violence or property theft? While mandatory sentencing laws may in some cases do a great deal of injustice, and some judges are disposed to throw the book at drug users regardless, I suspect that with the present overcrowding in most detention systems, many such offenders receive probation and mandatory counseling more often than the public suspects. (The criminal justice system doesn't advertise this, naturally, since it undermines deterrence.)

In any case, regulation is another premise of serious legalization advocates: but regulation implies that addicts can no longer support their habits (and perhaps earn a living) by acting as small-time dealers: otherwise, everybody could buy wholesale and then push drugs at parties, bars, nightclubs, and so forth, openly, and that would unquestionably result in a surge of drug use. It would also remain illegal for companies licensed to legally sell drugs (whether cartels or others) to hire people to do this, or even to hand out free samples this way.

Still, I expect a lot of sharing by users with curious friends, with or without compensation (as opposed to profit), and as a result, a large number of new users going to buy drugs at the newly legal companies. They in turn would share, and the process would feed back on itself, greatly increasing the number of users

Even if usage doesn't increase, addicts who are unable to support both their habits and themselves through their ordinary wages (assuming gainful employment), generally must either become small-time dealers (whether supplementally or full-time) or else resort to burglary and other property crimes, or even violent crimes like robbery. Under legalization, they would no longer be able to function as small time dealers; this implies an increase, not a decrease, in property crimes and some violent crimes. Many users stand to lose their jobs, unless employer discrimination against drug users is legally banned.

Even if they don't lose their jobs, we return to the question of product price: unless that price dramatically decreases, many addicts (most of whom are working class to begin with) will not be able to support drug addition in addition to other normal living expenses, which again implies an increase in property crimes and some violent crimes.

Typo correction:

Last paragraph of my previous comment: "...will not be able to support drug addition in addition to other normal living expenses..."

This should obviously read "drug addiction" not "drug addition".

Jon, Lots of chatter about narcotics legalization. Drug dealers are true capitalists. I preferring legalizing it all and transferring 30 percent of DEA to the FDA. Cal Lash, Sgt. retired with two tours in narcotics enforcement

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