How does the nation’s preeminent old-school conservative columnist, writing a column about the “drug legalization dilemma,” fail to so much as make a passing mention of the eighteen states whose police power is being usurped by federal drug warriors? George Will, with some familiar arguments:
So, suppose cocaine or heroin were legalized and marketed as cigarettes and alcohol are. And suppose the level of addiction were to replicate the 7 percent of adults suffering from alcohol abuse or dependency. That would be a public health disaster. As the late James Q. Wilson said, nicotine shortens life, cocaine debases it.
Still, because the costs of prohibition — interdiction, mass incarceration, etc. — are staggeringly high, some people say, “Let’s just try legalization for a while.” Society is not, however, like a controlled laboratory; in society, experiments that produce disappointing or unexpected results cannot be tidily reversed.
Legalized marijuana could be produced for much less than a tenth of its current price as an illegal commodity. Legalization of cocaine and heroin would cut their prices, too; they would sell for a tiny percentage of their current prices. And using high excise taxes to maintain cocaine and heroin prices at current levels would produce widespread tax evasion — and an illegal market.
It’s like George Will is arguing with Ron Paul or something, the way he glosses over the distinctions between different drugs to make a blanket argument that they’re “natural” and therefore the government should protect its citizens from their harmful effects. The problem with that is according to the government’s own statistics, 60 percent of drug cartel profits come from the sale of marijuana (Will has quoted 80 percent), therefore simply allowing states to enforce their own laws would cut significantly into their ability to wreak havoc on both sides of the border. Will has made this argument himself.
Also, this has become something of a stock example but cannabis use in Portugal went down after it was legalized. And his claim that the price would drop to one-tenth what it is somewhat dodgy in light of a 2010 Rand study that concluded, “even with taxes, legally produced marijuana would likely cost no more than would illegal marijuana from Mexico.” Anyway the problem with that argument is that cheaper drugs are a feature not a bug to advocates of a more humane drug policy because high prices drive desperate, otherwise peaceful addicts to commit crimes.
President Obama has taken the hard-line, anti-10th Amendment position that the federal government can and should enforce federal drug policy in contravention of state law after promising, as did his predecessor, that he wouldn’t commit law enforcement resources to doing so. And that’s federal drug policy, not federal drug law. Under the Controlled Substances Act, the DEA could in theory reschedule cannabis from a drug with “no medical use” to a classification that allows for the possibility that maybe, just maybe, more than a third of the states in the Union might be on to something.
As for the skyrocketing death tolls and ongoing debasement of Mexican civil society due to the Drug War driving up cartel profits and an epidemic of violence that has spread southward to other Central American countries, Will just says current policy is “convulsing some nations to our south.” Oops!
He correctly notes that the war on drugs would be more efficient if we just bought and destroyed the drugs:
America spends 20 times more on drug control than all the world’s poppy and coca growers earn. A subsequent column will suggest a more economic approach to the “natural” problem of drugs.
Of course, that wouldn’t solve the problem in Mexico, as Will has acknowledged. ”If you really want to go after the Mexican cartels, and I’m not saying that is the only criterion for public policy, you’d legalize marijuana,” he said back in 2009.
As a Washington pundit, his lack of sympathy for 10th Amendment concerns is understandable if a bit disappointing. The drug war is clearly not an issue of state sovereignty or individual liberty for him, it’s a necessary task for the government to undertake because of our own “natural” propensity for substance abuse. The cost of that task is now seen as too high for a majority of Americans, at least when it comes to cannabis prohibition, and even Pat Robertson has acknowledged the drug war’s failure (though some have imputed sinister motives for this). But if Will is unpersuaded by civil libertarian or 10th Amendment arguments against cannabis prohibition, perhaps he might be swayed from his genteel equivocation by some of his own humanitarian logic: How many dead Mexicans is it going to take?