June 17, 2005
Five hundred economists led by that great radical Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, called for a national debate on marijuana. The issue: is the prohibition on the stuff worth the effort? A cost-benefit analysis says no. The call comes on the heels of a study by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron, suggesting that if marijuana was legalized, the government would save between $10-14 billion a year and make $2.4-6.2 billion in tax revenues.
Miron’s study indicated that dropping the efforts to wipe out the drug—which everyone in his or her right mind knows can’t be wiped out—would save the government $7.7 billion in enforcement. Since enforcement is a total failure (the price of the weed—I’m told—is less than it was before the billions and billions were spent, and in several counties in the west, marijuana is still the largest cash crop), little is lost. Those figures, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, may be conservative. Miron’s study does not include the costs to the legal system and the costs of incarceration, all of which would go away if the government put its efforts elsewhere. One percent of all inmates in state prisons are there for marijuana offenses.
Last year, 85.8 percent of high school seniors told government survey-takers that marijuana was "easy to get" -- a figure that has remained virtually unchanged for three decades. While marijuana arrests nearly tripled from 1991 to 2003 (the latest figures available), the number of teens trying marijuana for the first time went up by over 50 percent.The Washington-based project estimates that saving $14 billion would cover the price of securing all the loose nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union in less than three years, and one year’s savings would pay for the anti-terrorism port security measures now in place.
According to the federal government, nearly 15 million Americans use marijuana at least once a month. That's equal to every man, woman and child in the states of Oregon, Nebraska, Indiana and Oklahoma combined. It's nearly as many Americans as will buy a new car or truck this year. It's a huge market.
Prohibition cannot and will not make that market go away. It has simply given criminals and violent gangs an exclusive franchise, and society pays the price every day: In unregulated drug dealers with no incentive not to sell to kids, in clandestine grows hidden in national parks and surrounded by booby traps, in the bloodshed that inevitably comes with prohibition -- just as it did during America's ill-fated experiment with alcohol prohibition during the 1920s.
The economists sent a letter to President George Bush asking that the marijuana policy be reassessed. We know what a thoughtful reception that will get.