It's Deja Vu All Over Again.
The long discussion on regulating marijuana is back, as the Chronicle reports today. Except this time, true to the spirit of Humonetarianism, much of the discussion focuses on finances and costs.
Experts say an unprecedented confluence of factors might finally be driving a change on a topic once seen as politically too hot to handle.
Among them: the recession-fueled need for more public revenue, increased calls to redirect scarce law enforcement, court and prison resources, and a growing desire to declaw powerful and violent Mexican drug cartels. Also in the mix is a public opinion shift driven by a generation of Baby Boomers, combined with some new high-profile calls for legislation - including some well-known conservative voices joining with liberals.
Leading conservatives like former Secretary of State George Shultz and the late economist Milton Friedman years ago called for legalization and a change in the strategy in the war on drugs. This year mainstream pundits like Fox News' Glenn Beck and CNN's Jack Cafferty have publicly questioned the billions spent each year fighting the endless war against drugs and to suggest it now makes more financial and social sense to tax and regulate marijuana.
This is not a new discussion, of course. As some readers probably know, marijuana prohibition has not been with us forever. Scholars who have researched the history of drug criminalization, such as Troy Duster, trace it back to clashes between economic interests, as well as to demonization and oppression of minorities. In fact, the first U.S. law to criminalize drugs - the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 - focused on regulating taxation and licensing for drug purveyors and on protecting the medical profession, rather than on blanket prohibitions. Duster argues that it is no coincidence that substances used by middle-class whites, such as barbiturates, were left out of the criminalization frenzy, while marijuana (linked to Mexicans), heroin (linked to Blacks), and opiates (linked to the Chinese) became outlawed.
So, there's nothing given, or immutable, about our prohibition of drugs. Well, is it a good idea? That is a very complex question, since we could think of quite a variety of legalizing/regulating regimes to implement. In their wonderful book Drug War Heresies, Rob MacCoun and Peter Reuter examine a series of drug policies from all over the world and show that each system has advantages and drawbacks. They also highlight the political and economic hurdles to implementing sensible drug policies. Another interesting resource is this cool and well-articulated economic analysis by Andrew Clark from DELTA, who argues that any cost/benefit based analysis of regulating the drug market has to take into account the importance we ascribe to externalities, such as crime and ill health. Jeffrey Miron from Boston University argues that decriminalization will have little impact on marijuana use, and believes that decriminalization might affect other legal provisions, such as eliminating or relaxing the reliance on drug testing to determine parole violations.
We should keep in mind, though, two important things pertaining to the California situation: First, California has already effectively decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, although, as Rob MacCoun brilliantly proves in a new piece, not many people know that. And second, there is a permit system for medical marijuana operating according to CA laws (albeit in defiance of Federal laws).*
One of the things I like about the resurfacing of the marijuana regulation debate is that, probably for the first time, public discourse is attentive to the big picture. As became clear at the CCC conference, a major problem in addressing correctional policy is the disconnect between lawmaking and correctional implementation; lawmakers do not feel the harms and costs that are later born by those subjected to the correctional apparatus, and as humonetarians argue, by those picking up the tab. It's nice that the prison overcrowding issue has made it to the forefront of the marijuana debate.
*This it fascinating, complicated, messy, and merits discussion far beyond this framework.