busted: america's war on marijuana
Mark Kleiman: continued
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Don't the drug warriors have an argument that what they're doing is working?


The best argument for the effectiveness for drug law enforcement is marijuana right now. The price of marijuana is up, adjusting for both inflation and increased potency, by something like a factor of three, between the early '70s and today. It's the only illicit drug that's more expensive now than it was 25 years ago.

And for awhile there was also encouraging news on the consumption side. The number of users was falling and the number of young users was falling. That unfortunately stopped in 1991 and since then the number of young users has been increasing. And what's really frightening is initiation's happening at younger and younger ages. What's curious about all this is that it had nothing to do with enforcement. There's simply no evidence that marijuana enforcement has changed. I don't know what changed. Nobody knows what changed, and therefore strong propositions that we should do X and that will make marijuana use among kids go down are simply not justified.

If I knew why kids pick up a particular fashion this year and drop it next year, I wouldn't have to make a living doing drug policy. I could be inventing Hula Hoops. But in fact juvenile fashions come and go. One of my colleagues, a law professor, asked his class in about 1985 how many of them used marijuana and got almost no hands. So he asked them why. And one of them said, in a voice dripping with contempt, "Oh, that was a '70s thing,' as if the 70s were sometime during the Korean War. There's a natural pattern about juvenile fashion; nobody wants be doing what was done last year.

And on the other hand there's also a trend factor, that people you know imitate their older friends and siblings. There was a long- term increase in cannabis use from the mid-'60's, maybe even the early '60s, through about 1979. That was followed by a collapse from '79 to '91, and now a fairly sharp increase which may have ended last year.


What about the impact of increased prices for drugs....there's more opportunity for corruption and all that.


Those of us who study illicit markets used to believe that demand for most illicit drugs were inelastic. That is to say, an increase in price wouldn't decrease consumption very much. If that's true, then an increase in prices is actually a bad thing, because it increases the revenues, of the illicit market.

At least for heroin and cocaine, most people don't think that anymore. Now it looks like those prices are pretty elastic, and therefore that even the short term effectof increasing prices is to decrease revenues. The risk of making dealers richer, and increasing the criminal activity of the users, may not be there. The amount of money spent on cocaine, in the US has been close to a constant since the early '80s, despite a very substantial decrease in price.

In any case, the marijuana market is much less characterized by violence than the markets for heroin and cocaine. So it doesn't create the same level of problem. Most of the money in marijuana is in growing, not distributing. And that tends to be a relatively nonviolent activity: not invariably, but usually.


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