Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
John W. PayneMore Bans Won’t Deter Use, but Will Increase Costs
Posted at 10:51 pm on March 23, 2010, by John W. Payne

Early last month, Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice William Ray Price Jr. called for reforms of our criminal justice system, including incarcerating fewer nonviolent offenders. Price argued that such changes would both decrease recidivism and save the state money by decreasing prison budgets, and he was widely applauded by editorialists across the state for his stance. However, when a bill to ban K2, a chemical used as a synthetic substitute for marijuana, received its first public hearing little more than a week later, newspapers were equally eager to support the restriction. It should not be necessary to point out that increasing the number of nonviolent offenses is not obviously compatible with decreasing the number of nonviolent offenders behind bars. Furthermore, although enforcing a ban on K2 would require spending additional tax dollars, it is unlikely to lower the rate of drug use significantly.

According to Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron, federal, state, and local governments spend more than $44 billion per year in their attempts to stop people from using certain drugs. It is difficult to determine exactly how much money is spent on specific drugs, but given that there were 847,863 arrests for marijuana during 2008 — half of all drug arrests — it is safe to say that spending on marijuana enforcement is higher than for any other drug, and far out of proportion to the dangers of a drug that is relatively innocuous in comparison to most others. Still, despite the billions of dollars spent and millions of people arrested over the years, legal restrictions on marijuana appear to have had little to no impact on decreasing its use.

Although exact statistics for the period during marijuana’s initial prohibition are impossible to come by, when it was first outlawed in 1937, its use was confined almost exclusively to Mexican immigrants in the West and only a tiny proportion of the population had ever smoked it. Marijuana use skyrocketed during the 1960s, when simple possession still typically triggered jail time across the country. As use of the drug continued to increase throughout the 1970s, some states began decriminalizing marijuana possession, indicating that marijuana use tends to influence the law — not the other way around. The 2008 Monitoring the Future Survey, published annually by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, concedes that “A study of the effects of decriminalization by several states during the late 1970s found no evidence of any impact on the use of marijuana among young people, nor on attitudes and beliefs concerning its use.” The report does go on to note that some more recent studies find that teens living in states where marijuana possession is decriminalized are more likely to smoke marijuana, but this correlation does not indicate causation. As noted earlier, the idea that higher use rates drive decriminalization is a better fit for the timeframe, and it could also be that a third variable — such as wider adoption of more socially liberal views — help to cause both decriminalization and higher rates of marijuana use.

As of 2009, 102 million Americans — a third of the population — have used marijuana, according to estimates from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Almost all of them did so after marijuana was made illegal 73 years ago. Clearly, the law does not stop people from obtaining and using marijuana. Usage rates have changed dramatically over the years, but those changes are driven far more by wider social changes and shifting attitudes than by any law. Only politicians could be so vain as to believe their dictates are the guiding force in the lives of millions of people.

A ban of K2, or of any similar drug, will not stop people from becoming intoxicated in some politically incorrect way. In fact, given that K2 is being sold primarily as a legal substitute for marijuana, banning it may simply send K2 users back to marijuana use, an outcome that I do not believe the bill’s supporters intend. However, if people truly enjoy K2, no law passed by a legislature will ever repeal the law of supply and demand. Market forces will provide consumers with the goods they want — even illicit ones. Banning K2 would increase the already stratospheric costs of enforcing our drug laws, without making an appreciable dent in drug use. Reasonable people would laugh such proposals out of the legislature, but when it comes to the war on drugs, we abandoned reason a long time ago.


Filed under: Drug Policy, Regulation
Comments: 2 Comments
 

2 Comments »

  1. […] We are calling it The Lesson Applied after Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson.  My first post is an op-ed I wrote on why Missouri should not ban the synthetic marijuana replacement K2.  If you […]

    Pingback by Yet Another Place to Read My Work « Rough Ol' Boy — March 23, 2010 @ 11:14 pm

  2. […] 24, 2010, by Wirkman Virkkala John W. Payne’s contribution, yesterday, on this very blog, “More Bans Won’t Deter Use, but Will Increase Costs,” raises a serious issue directly tied to the theme of this blog. The issue is Supply and Demand […]

    Pingback by The Lesson Applied » The Giffen Weed — March 24, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

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Henry Hazlitt"[T]he whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."
Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson
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