Pubdate: Tue, 2 Dec 2008
Source: Baltimore Sun (MD)
Copyright: 2008 The Baltimore Sun Company
Author: Dan Rodricks
Note: Dan Rodricks can be heard on "Midday" from noon to 2 p.m. 
Monday through Thursday on 88.1 WYPR-FM.
Bookmark: (Opinion)


Friday marks 75 years since repeal of the Volstead Act, which made the
manufacture, distribution and consumption of alcoholic beverages
illegal in the United States. As the anniversary of the end of
Prohibition approaches, modern advocates of a similar repeal are
calling again for the decriminalization of heroin, cocaine and
marijuana - and this time they've come packing a money argument by a
Harvard economist.

I like money arguments. They are usually a lot more effective than
emotional ones or those that exploit stubborn prejudices with the
intent of maintaining the status quo.

As the American economy recedes, state and local tax revenues fall and
government budgets are cut, the money argument for changing the way we
do things - from enforcing the laws to educating children - makes the
most sense and has the strongest appeal.

I've made the argument in this space for more government investment in
drug treatment, criminal rehabilitation and ex-offender services - and
not just because it's the humane thing to do, but because it's the
common-sense thing to do.

We have the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world, and
fancy revolving doors on an expensive prison system that takes back,
within just three years, more than half of all inmates it releases. We
keep financing public failure on a scale that would never be tolerated
in private enterprise.

Politicians who hold office and pass laws somehow have convinced us
that, if the prison system is broken, we don't need to fix it.
Law-and-order types want us to believe they are protecting us from
violent criminals, and they are, of course. But they've also created
and financed a recidivistic system that does little more than
warehouse 1 million-plus American adults until they're released,
usually to the same environment and influences that got them in
trouble to begin with.

With some education and training, a much higher percentage of these
inmates might become productive citizens. A wiser investment of tax
dollars might mean more of them staying out of our taxpayer-funded
prisons longer - if not for good. Teach a guy a skill, give him a
crack at a decent job despite his criminal past, and we might even be
able to close prisons instead of building wings on them.

Advocates for narcotics decriminalization have been saying for years
that the war on drugs has cost American taxpayers billions of dollars
with little to show in benefit, and they're correct. Today in
Washington, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an organization of
former cops and veterans of the war on drugs, will release a study
giving the money argument for their cause.

Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron's report, funded by the pro-repeal
Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, looked at arrest and prosecution
of drug crimes across the country, as well as taxation rates for
Americans' legal vices - tobacco and booze. The Miron report assumes
two things - that full legalization will mean savings in law
enforcement costs and that the state, local and federal governments
will see new revenues once coke and heroin are controlled and taxed.

Miron reached the following conclusions:

.Legalizing drugs would save roughly $44.1 billion per year in
government expenditure on enforcement of drug laws, with about $30.3
billion of this savings going to state and local governments and the
rest staying in the U.S. Treasury.

.Drug legalization would yield tax revenue of $32.7 billion annually.
That's assuming legal drugs are taxed at rates similar to those on
alcohol and tobacco. About $6.7 billion would come from sales of legal
marijuana, $22.5 billion from sales of cocaine and heroin and the
remainder from the sales of other drugs now prohibited.

The report addresses my personal sticking point when it comes to
repealing the drug laws: that lifting the prohibition will likely
increase sales of drugs; people not now addicted will become addicted.

But, in projecting tax revenues, Miron assumes there would be no shift
in the demand for drugs, that it will stay about the same. "This
assumption," the report says, "likely errs in the direction of
understating the tax revenue from legalized drugs, since the
[existing] penalties for possession potentially deter some persons
from consuming."

Miron makes an interesting distinction between legalization and
decriminalization. The latter means repealing criminal penalties for
possession but keeping them for drug trafficking. Full legalization
eliminates arrests for possession as well as trafficking. The
advantages of full legalization are greater than those for
decriminalization, Miron says, because legalization saves
substantially more in prosecution and incarceration.

"Whether drug legalization is a desirable policy depends on many
factors other than the budgetary impacts discussed here," Miron says.
"Rational debate about drug policy should nevertheless consider these
budgetary effects."

For years, I've discussed decriminalization with friends and
colleagues, debated it with the legendary Baltimore defense attorney
Billy Murphy and LEAP leader Jack Cole, considered all the practical
arguments and struggled with the prospect of another set of addictive,
brain cell-burning substances in America's selection of legal poisons.

I've written numerous times about drug addiction and the need to treat
it as a medical problem and not a criminal problem. I've spoken to
hundreds of drug addicts and recovering drug addicts and seen the
devastating effects of heroin and cocaine on their lives and the lives
of their spouses and kids.

The money argument for repeal is interesting, and for some people
Miron's estimates might close the deal. But I'm not there yet. Make
heroin and coke legal and we'd have more drug addiction, more
dysfunctional people in our midst, and we've got our hands full now.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake