Saturday, January 07, 2017

From the Archives: Justin Bieber, Gary Becker, and the future of marijuana prohibition

Publisher's note: This article was originally published on on January 7, 2013. The publishing platform was discontinued July 1, 2016, and its web site went dark on or about July 10, 2016. I am republishing this piece in an effort to preserve it and all my other contributions to since April 6, 2010. It is reposted here without most of the internal links that were in the original.

Justin Bieber, Gary Becker, and the future of marijuana prohibition

What do teen heartthrob Justin Bieber and a Nobel prize-winning economist have in common?

It turns out that both, in their own way, have made a strong argument in favor of ending the War on Drugs.

Bieber, the Canadian singer and actor, was allegedly caught on film smoking a blunt (marijuana in a cigar wrapper), as reported by celebrity gossip site TMZ. The incident occurred not long after Bieber was involved in a traumatic accident that resulted in the death of a paparazzo trying to photograph the teen idol in his white Ferrari on a Los Angeles street.

Soon after the photographs surfaced, Bieber tweeted to his fans: “everyday growing and learning. trying to be better. u get knocked down, u get up” – not an apology but a subtle acknowledgment that the allegations may have substance.

Losing the war

The same day that TMZ published the Bieber photos, Nobel laureate economist Gary Becker published an article in the Wall Street Journal asking, “Have We Lost the War on Drugs?

Becker and his co-author, University of Chicago economist Kevin Murphy, point out that the “paradox of the war on drugs is that the harder governments push the fight, the higher drug prices become to compensate for the greater risks. That leads to larger profits for traffickers who avoid being punished. This is why larger drug gangs often benefit from a tougher war on drugs, especially if the war mainly targets small-fry dealers and not the major drug gangs. Moreover, to the extent that a more aggressive war on drugs leads dealers to respond with higher levels of violence and corruption, an increase in enforcement can exacerbate the costs imposed on society.”

Becker and Murphy argue for, at the very least, decriminalizing now-illegal drugs, as Colorado and Washington state voters did with regard to marijuana in last November's election.

“Decriminalization of all drugs by the U.S. would be a major positive step away from the war on drugs,” the economists said in the Wall Street Journal.

“In recent years, states have begun to decriminalize marijuana, one of the least addictive and less damaging drugs. Marijuana is now decriminalized in some form in about 20 states, and it is de facto decriminalized in some others as well. If decriminalization of marijuana proves successful, the next step would be to decriminalize other drugs, perhaps starting with amphetamines. Gradually, this might lead to the full decriminalization of all drugs.”

Saving money, raising revenue

Becker and Murphy are not the first notable economists to argue for an end to the drug war on the grounds that it is economically indefensible.

In 2005, a statement signed by 500 economists, including Nobel laureate Milton Friedman and several from Virginia's George Mason University, argued that ending marijuana prohibition “would save $7.7 billion per year in state and federal expenditures on prohibition enforcement and produce tax revenues of at least $2.4 billion annually if marijuana were taxed like most consumer goods. If, however, marijuana were taxed similarly to alcohol or tobacco, it might generate as much as $6.2 billion annually.”

The absence of a public outcry over Justin Bieber's alleged pot smoking, along with the Colorado and Washington initiatives and the adoption of laws permitting the medicinal use of marijuana in 18 states, suggest that the American people are more open to a rational discussion about ending the drug war. Bieber's non-apology on Twitter itself suggests that he views the incident as uncontroversial and unworthy of further attention.

While Gary Becker and other economists make erudite and logically rigorous arguments against drug prohibition, Bieber's near-silence is eloquent in its own way and equally compelling.

Politicians do not seem to be following expert opinion or public sentiment, however. While two years ago, then-Delegate Harvey Morgan (R-Gloucester) introduced legislation with the effect of decriminalizing marijuana possession, this year the emphasis in the Virginia General Assembly seems to be toward extending the reach of drug laws. Delegate Bill Carrico (R-Grayson County), for instance, has submitted a bill that would require welfare recipients to be tested for cannabis and other drugs. Nobody in Richmond seems to have taken on Delegate Morgan's mantle in the wake of his retirement.

Eventually, as Becker and similar thinkers point out, the law will catch up to public opinion.

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