Marijuana: Tax It, Regulate It, But Legalize It

The war on marijuana isn't working. Look no farther than the drug violence in Mexico.

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By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Legalize pot.

Regulate it. Tax the hell out of it. But legalize marijuana.

Do we need any more proof that our drug policy is bankrupt and counterproductive than what is going on along the Mexican border these days?

Do we really need to spend $8 billion a year wasting law enforcement's time, and building and staffing huge prisons for marijuana offenders, which only serve to give them post-graduate degrees in crime?

Couldn't we find better things to do with the $14 billion a year we would reap in recouped costs and taxes?

Wouldn't it be wiser to ensure that users buy pure and undoctored products from government dispensaries instead of unknown substances from shady evil guys?

Don't our own farmers deserve the cash crop?

Let's consider the opinion of over 500 economists, including the conservative darling, Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman.

"Existing evidence ... suggests prohibition has minimal benefits and may itself cause substantial harm," the economists concluded, when urging the country to have "an open and honest debate" about legalization.

Harvard Prof. Jeffrey Miron, in a June 2005 paper, came up with the figures cited above. A legalized but heavily regulated and taxed regime would save $7.7 billion in enforcement costs and yield up to $6.2 billion in revenue. And that is if marijuana were merely taxed at the levels of alcohol and cigarettes.

Late last month, in the pages of the Wall Street Journal (no liberal sheet that) three former presidents of Brazil, Columbia, and Mexico declared that the U.S. "war on drugs has failed." Who could argue with them? The drug cartels rule huge swaths of Afghanistan and Columbia and Mexico, despite the billions of dollars we spend to combat them. In too many places, the traffickers are allied with terrorist organizations.

And let's not delude ourselves. It's not poor Afghans and Mexicans who are using those drugs. It's the Russians and Europeans and Americans.

The three presidents—Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Cesar Gaviria of Columbia, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico—presented a report from the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy. They noted that drug violence, in Mexico alone, took more than 5,000 lives last year.

"Prohibition policies based on eradication, interdiction and criminalization of consumption simply haven't worked," they wrote. "Violence and the organized crime associated with the narcotics trade remain critical problems in our countries. Latin America remains the world's largest exporter of cocaine and cannabis, and is fast becoming a major supplier of opium and heroin.

"Today, we are further than ever from the goal of eradicating drugs.

"The revision of US-inspired drug policies is urgent in light of the rising levels of violence and corruption associated with narcotics. The alarming power of the drug cartels is leading to a criminalization of politics and a politicization of crime. And the corruption of the judicial and political system is undermining the foundations of democracy in several Latin American countries."

The Puritan strain is still strong in the United States. And of course the baby boom cohort still insists on re-fighting its junior high school wars: prisses vs. rockers. You would think that, having tried the disastrous experiment of the Prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s, we would learn from the experience, but no.

I'm a realist. As long as the baby boomers are around and voting, and there is one last drip of emotional venom to be milked by politicians from the culture wars, the legalization of drugs is not in our immediate future.

But we can at least take a step back and examine our "war" with some kind of dispassionate and scientific eye, and remove the federal blockades that keep individual states from experimenting with alternative policies concerning marijuana.

What if we let Alaskans or Californians or residents in other libertarian-minded states—should they see fit—proceed as an initial step with the de-criminalization of marijuana, and some rudimentary commercialization, under government supervision?

To satisfy the Puritans, we could add to this a massive public education campaign about health hazards and personal responsibility (as the three Latin American presidents suggest), like those that have shown success combating smoking or littering.

By the time we boomers kick off, our kids and grandkids should have a formidable base of evidence to decide—free of our petty sniping and quarrels—whether legalization of drugs is, in fact, a good idea. At the very least, as the scientists say, we should start a serious debate.

Now, if only we had a few more politicians like Ron Paul and Kurt Schmoke, with the guts—with the audacity—to say so.

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