Source: The Financial Times
October 27 2010
Just say no, the slogan says. But on November 2, California has the chance to say yes, at least to marijuana. Proposition 19 would legalise the production, sale and use of cannabis, abolishing an ineffective and socially damaging prohibition on a substance with fewer health risks than alcohol and tobacco. The Golden State should vote to legalise dope.
Proponents of banning drugs make two claims: that bans reduce use, and cut associated social problems, such as violence. Neither is persuasive. Prohibition in the US reduced alcohol consumption only slightly. There is scant evidence that the US’s “war on drugs” has done better. America is not alone: worldwide, there is no correlation between the zeal with which states pursue users and how many drugs their citizens take.
Prohibition has only a small impact on drug use but a big impact on society. Enforcement is uneven. It targets poorer people and racial minorities. Young blacks in California smoke less pot than whites, yet are more than twice as likely to be arrested for possession. This is literally pot luck. And in an illegal market, the purity of drugs cannot be controlled: overdoses are more likely.
Rather than stopping violence, prohibition fuels it. Most drug violence is caused by turf wars, not users committing petty crimes to finance their habit. Traffickers cannot rely on the courts to resolve disputes so they swap lawyers for guns. Mexico’s increasingly bloody drug war – some gangsters are better armed than the state – has cost 28,000 lives since 2006. By raising prices, prohibition allows drug barons to reap high profits. Simply smuggling a kilo of marijuana from Mexico to the US raises its price from $80 to $2,000.
Some countries have opted for decriminalisation, which allows possession but penalises production. The supply chain remains in the hands of criminals. California’s proposals would go further, potentially creating a fully legal market for marijuana. This substance does not carry the addictive properties or health risks associated with hard drugs. Legalising it would cut violence and profits. Losing marijuana revenues would not be a fatal hit for cartels who derive much of their income from other drugs, but it would still hurt them.
Resources spent chasing and locking up drug users would be freed up. And by legalising and taxing marijuana, California could raise substantial revenues. Proponents put the benefits at about $1.3bn a year. For a bankrupt state, this is serious money.
Legalising marijuana might increase its use. But the rise is likely to be small; Californians can already get cannabis armed only with a doctor’s note. In Portugal, where possession of all drugs was decriminalised in 2000, cannabis use has hardly budged.
Some fear legalising a “gateway” drug would fuel consumption of more harmful substances. But the percentage of cannabis users who also use other drugs is low. Making pot cheap, safe and available might even encourage substitution away from the harder stuff.
In fact, legalisation has public health benefits: drug deaths in Portugal fell after decriminalisation. With the threat of arrest removed, users are more likely to seek treatment. A legal supply chain also allows quality control. This is less of a boon than with harder drugs; even in large doses marijuana is rarely fatal. But treating drug use as a public health issue rather than a criminal one is surely correct. Most harm done by drug users is to themselves, not others.
However California votes, marijuana will remain illegal in the US. Nor will Proposition 19 weed out all the social problems caused by narcotics use. But it will make a start at removing a failed policy that exacerbates these ills – an approach which could, if successful, perhaps in time be applied to other drugs. It is time to say yes.Republish