The consensus thinking among libertarians is that the standard by which people should judge any law or government program is whether the benefits of that law or government program outweigh the costs associated with its enactment or enforcement.
With that in mind, can anybody name for me any example from history when any government of any kind has ever been able to prevent its citizens from partaking of any vice by prohibiting that behavior? No? Then explain how the United States Federal Government intends to stop the use of a substance that can be routinely cultivated in an average person’s closet.
The prohibition of marijuana can never be successful.
Knowing that there is zero possibility of success in its prohibition, the question each of us must ask is whether the benefits of limiting the use of marijuana as a drug outweigh the costs associated with combating it.
How effective has prohibition been in reducing marijuana usage? Not very effective.
The 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that the number of people over the age of 12 who admitted to using cannabis within the past month rose from 6.2 percent in 2002 to 6.6 percent in 2009.
However, keep in mind that these numbers are survey-based and, since illegal drug use is unquantifiable in any exact sense, there is every reason to believe the real numbers are far higher. Reason.com columnist Jacob Sullum uses data from the FBI and the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in a Sept. 16 blog post to highlight the fact that while arrests for marijuana crimes have roughly tripled since the early 1990’s, use has not only remained constant, but has actually risen slightly. Since the government can only ever hope to reduce usage and it hasn’t even done that, then the only question left to answer is whether the costs of prohibition outweigh its nonexistent success.
Even a cursory glance at those costs indicates that they far exceed the benefits. For example, The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) claims that in 1997 “only 1.6 percent of the state inmate population had been convicted of a marijuana only crime, including trafficking.” This was before many states began legalizing medical marijuana, which resulted in a federal crackdown on trafficking and use, but let’s assume that the same percentage holds true today at both the state and federal level.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported that in 2006, there were 1,569,945 federal and state prison inmates. At a rate of 1.6 percent, that means over 25,000 of them were incarcerated for marijuana crimes. BJS statistics on corrections expenditures indicate that these 25,000 inmates represent a cost of just over $1 billion that year. This is just the cost for the incarceration of these inmates, which number does not even include all those who violated other laws as a result of being involved in the criminalized economy of marijuana. To me, this represents a minimum of 25,000 people and $1 billion too many.
Then there is the cost imposed by prohibition on hemp cultivation. Hemp is one of the most useful crops mankind has ever cultivated. It was so crucial to the colonial economy that many areas, including Mass., required farmers to dedicate some portion of their acreage to its cultivation. Despite the fact that it had been criminalized in 1937, the U.S. government initiated the “Hemp for Victory” program during World War II to encourage farmers to grow the crop for use in making rope and other products for the war effort. Today, rather than cutting down trees, which remove carbon from the atmosphere and are at best a semi-renewable resource, we could be making paper (and cloth and plastic and myriad and other useful items) from a crop that generates less pollution in the manufacturing process, grows in almost any climate region and is completely renewable.
So, is there some other proven method for reducing the use of a harmful substance? Remarkably, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the government’s own data shows that we have had far more success reducing the prevalence of smoking than we have in reducing the use of cannabis. Through aggressive education and prevention programs, not to mention increasingly heavy doses of taxation, the percentage of adults who smoke in the U.S. has declined from 24.7 percent in 1997 to 20.6 percent in 2009.
In fact, the number of adult smokers had dropped to only 19.7 percent in 2007 before the recent recession began at the end of that year, once again proving the correlation of rising vice to periods of economic distress.
Besides, I don’t know about you, but I would really look forward to seeing what MTV would do with their “Shards ‘O Glass” anti-smoking commercials to refocus them on reducing youth pot smoking.
I’m not going to tell you that legalization is the only solution to our marijuana issues, but as these facts prove beyond any doubt, the current situation causes more harm than good. Prohibition is not working, so let’s find something that will.
Ben Rudnick is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.