Pubdate: Sun, 14 Jun 2009
Source: News Tribune, The (Tacoma, WA)
Copyright: 2009 Tacoma News Inc.
Author: Kevin A. Sabet
Note: Kevin A. Sabet worked at the Office of National Drug Control Policy in
the Clinton and Bush administrations.
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)
Bookmark: (Cannabis)


Last month, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger reignited a heated
debate when he called for a civilized discussion on the merits of
marijuana legalization.

Indeed, the governor was responding to new public opinion polls
showing greater interest in the policy idea - and with the mounting
problems associated with the drug trade in Mexico and here in the
U.S., it is hard to blame anyone for suggesting that we at least
consider all potential policy solutions.

One major justification for legalization remains tempting: the money.
Unfortunately, however, the financial costs of marijuana legalization
would never outweigh its benefits.

Yes, the marijuana market seems like an attractive target for taxation
- - Abt Associates, a research company, estimates that the industry is
worth roughly $10 billion a year - and California could certainly use
a chunk of that cash to offset its budget woes in the current economic

What is rarely discussed, however, is that the likely increase in
marijuana prevalence resulting from legalization would probably
increase the already high costs of marijuana use in society. Accidents
would increase, health-care costs would rise and productivity would

Legal alcohol serves as a good example: The $8 billion in tax revenue
generated from that widely used drug does little to offset the nearly
$200 billion in social costs attributed to its use.

In fact, both of our two already legal drugs - alcohol and tobacco -
offer chilling illustrations of how an open market fuels greater
harms. They are cheap and easy to obtain. Commercialization glamorizes
their use and furthers their social acceptance. High profits make
aggressive marketing worthwhile for sellers. Addiction is simply the
price of doing business.

Would marijuana use rise in a legal market for the drug? Admittedly,
marijuana is not very difficult to obtain currently, but a legal
market would make getting the drug that much easier. Tobacco and
alcohol are used regularly by 30 percent and 65 percent of the
population, respectively, while all illegal drugs combined are used by
about 6 percent of Americans.

In the Netherlands, where marijuana is de facto legalized, lifetime
use "increased consistently and sharply" after this policy shift
triggered commercialization, tripling among young adults, according to
data analysis from the Rand Corp. We might expect a similar or worse
result here in America's ad-driven culture.

An honest debate on marijuana policy also carefully considers the
costs of our current approach. Arrest rates for marijuana are
relatively high, reaching about 800,000 last year. Although these
numbers are technically recorded under the category of "possession,"
the story that is seldom told is that hardly any of these possession
arrests result in jail time (that is why former New York City Mayor
Rudolph Giuliani made headlines when he aggressively arrested public
marijuana users and detained them for 12 to 24 hours in the 1990s).

One of the most astute minds in the field of drug policy, Carnegie
Mellon's Jonathan Caulkins, formerly the co-director of Rand's drug
policy research center, found that more than 85 percent of people in
prison for all drug-law violations were clearly involved in drug
distribution, and that the records of most of the remaining prisoners
had at least some suggestion of distribution involvement (many
prisoners plea down from more serious charges to possession in
exchange for information about the drug trade).

Only about half a percent of the total prison population was there for
marijuana possession, he found.

He noted that this figure was consistent with other mainstream
estimates but not with estimates from the Marijuana Policy Project (a
legalization interest group), which, according to Caulkins, "naively .
. . assumes that all inmates convicted of possession were not involved
in trafficking."

Caulkins concluded that "an implication of the new figure is that
marijuana decriminalization would have almost no impact on prison

This is not meant to imply that marijuana arrests do not have costs,
but rather, that these concerns have been highly exaggerated.

Finally, legalizing marijuana would in no way ensure that the most
vicious drug-related problems - violence, economic-related crime,
street gang activity - would disappear.

Most of those problems stem from the cocaine, heroin and
methamphetamine markets. Marijuana's share of the black market is
modest (the cocaine market is three times larger), and the money that
is spent on the drug is spread over so many users and distributors
that few are working with amounts that motivate or encourage high
levels of crime.

Moving beyond the simplistic and unrealistic option of legalization,
what can we do to reduce marijuana use and the costly harms it brings?

Increasing the ferocity of enforcement isn't the answer, but
increasing its potential for effectiveness through deterrent methods
might be.

Programs such as Project HOPE in Hawaii, which perform regular, random
drug testing on probationers and others and implement reliable, swift
(but short) sanctions for positive screens, have shown remarkable success.

Innovative solutions, grounded in sound research on prevention,
treatment and enforcement, present the shortest route out of
marijuana-related costs. But an open market for the stuff? That
doesn't pass the giggle test.

Kevin A. Sabet worked at the Office of National Drug Control Policy in
the Clinton and Bush administrations. He is currently a consultant in
private practice.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin