Pubdate: Sun, 15 Apr 2012
Source: Oshkosh Northwestern (WI)
Copyright: 2012 Gannett Co., Inc.
Author: George Will


WASHINGTON -- Amelioration of today's drug problem requires Americans 
to understand the significance of the 80/20 ratio. Twenty percent of 
American drinkers consume 80 percent of the alcohol sold here. The 
same 80-20 split obtains among users of illicit drugs.

About 3 million people -- less than 1 percent of America's population 
- -- consume 80 percent of illegal hard drugs. Drug trafficking 
organizations can be most efficiently injured by changing the 
behavior of the 20 percent of heavy users, and we are learning how to 
do so. Reducing consumption by the 80 percent of casual users will 
not substantially reduce the northward flow of drugs or the southward 
flow of money.

Consider current policy concerning the only addictive intoxicant 
currently available as a consumer good -- alcohol. America's alcohol 
industry, which is as dependent on the 20 percent of heavy drinkers 
as they are on alcohol, markets its products aggressively, and 
effectively. Because marketing can drive consumption, America's 
distillers, brewers and vintners spend $6 billion on advertising and 
promoting their products. Americans' experience with marketing's 
power inclines them to favor prohibition and enforcement over 
legalization and marketing of drugs.

But this choice has consequences: More Americans are imprisoned for 
drug offenses or drug-related probation and parole violations than 
for property crimes. And although America spends five times more 
jailing drug dealers than it did 30 years ago, the prices of cocaine 
and heroin are 80 percent to 90 percent lower than 30 years ago.

In "Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know," policy 
analysts Mark Kleiman, Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken argue that 
imprisoning low-ranking, street-corner dealers is pointless: A $200 
transaction can cost society $100,000 for a three-year sentence. And 
imprisoning large numbers of dealers produces an army of people who, 
emerging from prison with blighted employment prospects, can only 
deal drugs. Which is why, although a few years ago Washington, D.C., 
dealers earned an average of $30 an hour, today they earn less than 
the federal minimum wage ($7.25).

There is a staggering disparity between the trivial sums earned by 
dealers who connect the cartels to the cartels' customers, and the 
huge sums trying to slow the flow of drugs to those street-level 
dealers. Kleiman, Caulkins and Hawken say that in developed nations, 
cocaine sells for about $3,000 per ounce -- almost twice the price of 
gold. And the supply of cocaine, unlike that of gold, can be cheaply 
and quickly expanded. But in the countries where cocaine and heroin 
are produced, they sell for about 1 percent of their retail price in 
America. If cocaine were legalized, a $2,000 kilogram could be 
FedExed from Colombia for less than $50 and sold profitably in 
America for a small markup from its price in Colombia, and a $5 rock 
of crack might cost 25 cents. Criminalization drives the cost of the 
smuggled kilogram in America up to $20,000. But then it retails for 
more than $100,000.

People used to believe enforcement could raise prices but doubted 
that higher prices would decrease consumption. Now they know 
consumption declines as prices rise but wonder whether enforcement 
can substantially affect prices.

They urge rethinking the drug-control triad of enforcement, 
prevention and treatment because we have been much too optimistic 
about all three.

And cartels have oceans of money for corrupting enforcement because 
drugs are so cheap to produce and easy to renew. So it is not 
unreasonable to consider modifying a policy that gives hundreds of 
billions of dollars a year to organized crime.

Marijuana probably provides less than 25 percent of the cartels' 
revenues. Legalizing it would take perhaps $10 billion from some bad 
and violent people, but the cartels would still make much more money 
from cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines than they would lose from 
marijuana legalization.

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized "medical 
marijuana," a messy, mendacious semi-legalization that breeds 
cynicism regarding law. In 1990, 24 percent of Americans supported 
full legalization. Today, 50 percent do. In 2010, in California, 
where one-eighth of Americans live, 46 percent of voters supported 
legalization, and some opponents were marijuana growers who like the 
profits they make from prohibition of their product.

Would the public health problems resulting from legalization be a 
price worth paying for injuring the cartels and reducing the costs of 
enforcement? We probably are going to find out.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom