A revenue and legalization lesson from FDR

By J Saft
February 25, 2009

James Saft Great Debate – James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. –

(Correcting name of academic to Peter Reuter on Feb 27)

Want to help fund the bank bailout, ease California’s budget crisis and shore up strained U.S. finances? Legalize drugs, tax the trade and save on interdiction, domestic enforcement and the prison and court system.

I’m only partly joking.

It won’t solve all of the U.S.’s problems and lord knows will cause some new ones, but the money is undeniably big enough to make a dent.

After all, it certainly helped Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who legalized alcohol in 1933 in the midst of the Depression and after more than a decade of prohibition, thus bringing a half a billion in 1933 dollars into public coffers in the form of tax revenue. By 1936, alcohol taxes were 13 percent of Federal revenue.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has a similar opportunity. He is facing a $42 billion budget deficit, his prisons are filled to bursting, in substantial part with people in on drug-related crime, and he will soon be forced by judicial edict to start freeing people. He also has an offer from a group call Let Us Pay Taxes, which claims to represent the marijuana industry and is willing to pay $1 billion annually in taxes if only he will legalize. No doubt they are low-balling.

The U.N. estimates the value of the U.S. cannabis market at $64 billion annually, while a paper by academics Jonathan Caulkins and Peter Reuter calculates that about half of the costs of drugs are in one way or another attributable by factors linked to interdiction and its perils (click here to read Render’s paper in pdf format).

But even if you cut the U.N. number in half and only tax it at 50 percent, a lower tax than many states and localities put on tobacco, you’d still get more than $15 billion nationwide. If California consumes its 13 percent share, in line with GDP, and I am betting it does, you are looking at something on the order of $2 billion even before you take account of lower costs. Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Miron has a lower estimate, at $7.7 billion annually nationally in lower spending and $6.2 billion in extra revenues.

Of course, these figures could fluctuate wildly depending on levels of compliance and market factors.
But why stop at cannabis? Just as Roosevelt decided that prohibition of alcohol was a failed policy the U.S. could no longer afford, perhaps the costs of re-building the U.S. banking system and lifting the country out of a severe recession will prompt another radical plans. I wouldn’t bet on it, but strange things are happening all over.

A BILLION HERE, A BILLION THERE

And if we start including other drugs the billions will only mount. There is another $100 billion in annual illegal drug sales in the U.S. outside of cannabis, which might produce another $25 billion annually in revenue by the same maths. The U.S. Federal government alone spent $13 billion on the drugs war in 2002, not counting prison costs.

Then there are other costs of the American drug interdiction efforts internationally, not least in Afghanistan, where opium revenue fuels the Taliban. The U.S. spends more than $1 billion a year there on anti-drug efforts, but opium money undoubtedly raises the total costs for the U.S. by much more.

The stream of income from all of this extending into the future is very valuable indeed and would go a way towards paying the price of fixing the banking system.

This brings us to another point of weakness for the U.S.; namely its ability to fund all of the costs it has already taken on and is likely to have to shoulder in the next several years. Moody’s credit rating agency did what everyone has pretty much taken for granted for a while not long ago, acknowledging that the U.S.’s AAA credit rating is being “tested” and falls into a category below those on the top shelf like Canada and Germany.

It’s not all wine and roses though. Cheaper legal drugs may lead to a spike in use, which might hit productivity and impose lots of costs, such as higher health and other welfare costs. All of those prison, military and law enforcement jobs are a huge source of stimulus, and the cut backs implied by legalization would raise transitional problems.

Moreover, drug legalisation, just like for alcohol, is essentially a moral and political decision about which reasonable people can disagree. It’s also, to put it mildly, not very likely.

Still the war on drugs rolls on, costing billions, creating huge incentives for violence and crime, imprisoning hundreds of thousands and seemingly never much closer to victory. The waste and misery involved must make it rival the sub-prime bubble as a misallocation of resources.

Perhaps one stone will end up killing two birds.

– At the time of publication James Saft did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. He may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund. For previous columns by James Saft, click here. –

103 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

I like the disclaimer at the end: “James Saft did not own any direct investments…” it is conceivable that he may at other times invest direclty into said market.

Posted by doctherooster | Report as abusive

This is no joke. I’d be very surprised if our legislators had to wisdom or will to do this, but it is an action that is over due.
Stop treating otherwise law abiding citizens as criminals. What is criminal is the percentage of our population that is in prison. Free up the courts and the prison system so they can function more as they were meant to. Raise revenues, lower expenditures and spend some interdiction money on treatment for those that need it.
Nah, makes too much sense.

Posted by Alan Chernin | Report as abusive

There’s one thing always bothers me about suggestions like this, and maybe James is one person smart enough to spot the hole in my thinking.

Basically, it boils down to the fact that criminals don’t have pension plans. If we legalise commonly trafficked drugs, what will the traffickers do? It seems unlikely that they will simply turn to legal business, start paying taxes and stop having turf wars.

One thing they might do is turn to other, still illegal drugs. There is the potential for a kind of arms race here, as the state legalises more and more drugs, and the traffickers turn to ever more novel drugs. This is an arms race the traffickers, I think, are bound to win (and especially in countries like the UK who might be presumed to treat addicts on the NHS), because unlike the state, they don’t much care whether their customers live or die. So they’ll very likely be able to come up with a product so toxic that no state could countenance legalising it, let alone prescribing it.

Or if not drugs, what else might they turn to? Fake pharmaceuticals? That problem is already close to being out of control; if the traffickers turned their attention to it full time, there might be some very nasty consequences. Human trafficking? Counterfeit parts for aircraft and cars? Almost as bad.

I think we need to devote more thought to understanding why legalising alcohol worked. Perhaps the US was lucky in that in those days, with the exception of a few celebrities, the bootleg trade was a lot less organised (and globalised) than the drug trade is now?

Posted by Ian Kemmish | Report as abusive

“At the time of publication James Saft did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. He may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund. For previous columns by James Saft, click here. –”

Does this statement include the “investments” Mr. Saft may hold in the aforementioned controlled substances!

Posted by chaudfroid | Report as abusive

The cat is out of the bag and our cabal of Prohibitionists are down to less than a leg to stand on… As hard as they’ve tried to keep discussion of the issue from the mainstream, it’s here.

Legalization. Say it… “le-gal-i-za-tion”

That’s good… say it again… “legalization”

See, it isn’t that hard is it? Now, understand it. Understand that to maintain drugs Prohibition is to keep the drug thugs and the drug cartels fat and happy. The drug war is their cash cow, the goose laying their golden eggs. Legalization would cook their goose…

I’ve got a better solution. Why not impose a mandatory 5 year sentence for drug possession (no matter who) unless you give up the name of the person who supplied the drugs.
This way you can go back up the food chain an Hopefully eliminate the source.

Posted by David | Report as abusive

Yes Yes Yes! I am not an advocate of drug use at all BUT the war on drugs is as much a failure as prohibition was in the 20s. We have allowed a criminal distribution network with NO morals to become wealthier than some countries. Addicts will ALWAYS have problems legal or not, legalization removes the revenue stream from immoral elements and allows us to tax/fund help for addicts that actually want help.

Posted by scott_mich | Report as abusive

Prohibition does nothing except empower the wrong people. It hasn’t eliminated demand for or availability of drugs. Plus, you have to be pretty steeped in anti-drug propaganda to think it is just to put people in jail for smoking a plant that is less harmful than alcohol.

Posted by Will Almand | Report as abusive

In many years of work as a nurse I have NEVER seen a person in the hospital because of marijuana use/abuse. Alcohol is the #1 most dangerous drug in America, from a medical standpoint-ask anyone in the medical field.
As for drugs like heroin,from what I have seen, working near a major Physics ‘Laboratory’ in the Southwest for many years, this and other such drugs are already legal for all practical purposes. The ‘users’ get free medical care for any and all needs. Medicare/medicaid-your tax dollars at work, also the ‘indigent fund’, and other such freebies pay for all their needs. These people are experts at getting everything for nothing (I can imagine in California it is even more extreme), the health care system has figured out how to get their piece of this financial pie by treating and billing whoever will pay (you can’t have these people dieing by the side of the road-it looks bad for the country in the international press). The drug use is multi-generational in families, everyone knows who these people are, there are no legal repercussions. To tell the truth after working around these people for years I mostly forget that these drugs are even ‘illegal’ until I read something like this. I don’t consider the users to be any more or less ‘crooked’ than the banking people who have stolen all the money; nothing is going to happen to those crooks either.

Posted by QueZen | Report as abusive

Some years ago, one of our major scientific bodies, possibly the National Science Foundation, studied how much cocaine you could prevent the use of by spending $1 million various ways. The least was mandatory sentencing; a couple of pounds. The most was education and treatment; you would need a forklift. Sorry to be vague; this is from memory.

Posted by Pete Cann | Report as abusive

What is $$ cost to put someone in jail for 5 years … just the prison cost?

Posted by Carolyn | Report as abusive

Its great this discussion is beginning to get serious play. Some may recall, the late, great William F. Buckley (founder, editor, publisher of the National Review) was a very strong proponent of general narcotics legalization back in the 1980′s.

Ian’s comments are apparently shared by many. In today’s Dallas Morning News, editorial writer Tod Robberson stated basically the same concern: if we legal various narcotics what will the cartels do, just disband and go home or find something else to smuggle? While it may be interesting to ponder such things it really amounts to “fear of the unknown”. It is really not a serious argument for not doing what obviously the right thing. With the gun battles, beheadings, bodies strung from highway overpasses with dire warning banners attached, I’m not sure what worse problem could “fill the vacuum” after legalization.

Posted by Tony | Report as abusive

It is time to legalize marijuana- a so-called “drug” that is so widely used and readily available it is almost as if it is legal right now. Instead of simply stuffing my dealers’ wallets full of cash, why not help out my country in the process? Also, legalizing would do wonders for police-community relations, particularly among young people. It is time to let our law enforcement and courts get back to their real jobs instead of harassing and imprisoning the peaceful public.

Posted by Dre | Report as abusive

They should legalize Marijuana, already been proven by dozen of studies to be less lethal and addictive than tobacco, however there are no huge companies lobbying for marijuana as there are for tobacco. Alcohol is also more lethal than Marijuana and it has been around forever. I think congress should stand up and let their heads take a breather, and consider this along with prostitution.
Prostitution may give the night workers some hope of Social Security and retirement plans that they can not hope for now, and push some health plan to require them regular checks, to make sure they are safe. They already have this in other countries and people are not killing each other over this everyday, or spending billions to control social deficiencies that begin in everyone’s home. If you want to reduce this human necessity to incur in illegal activities start by injecting ethics and morals, with a high dose of family values, that every hard working parent can not do while on the streets 12 to 14 hours a day, just to raise a socially immoral being. Lets’ fight the wars worth winning right in our backyard, and stop trying to police the whole world while our own is crumbling apart.

Posted by Vincent | Report as abusive

@ David
That type of suggestion illustrates your total lack of understanding of the issue and its complexities. Hey here’s an idea- how about we lock up ALL of the roughly 1/3 of young Americans (and I’d consider that a conservative estimate) who’ve tried pot, instead of wasting the human potential of mere thousands of your fellow Americans annually in our time of need. From what you’ve said I assume you’d consider it justified based on the extreme danger posed to you personally by other people’s consumption of an intoxicant with a history of human use stretching back at least 6,000 years. Because I’m sure with just another few billion dollars a year and a few hundred more prisons we can finally stop this insidious plague- since there are so many studies providing evidence of the effectiveness of this war on drugs so far. I’m also sure that you’d be excited to cover this massive undertaking from your taxes. Try learning a little something about a subject before you comment on it, it makes for healthier debate.

Posted by Art | Report as abusive

I say lock ‘em all up!- the idiots who still believe in the Drug War, that is. “Drug-Free America” lol! Don’t be a Patsy.
Read this morn that the Mexican Atty Gen says they’ve got the cartels on the ropes. I’m not kidding. Dallas-Morning News.

Posted by Dave | Report as abusive

To David and Ian,

David, you are abosolutly right!! we should just lock up these people and remove them from society.

But certainly dont legalize drugs: here are the reasons why. It is in our interest (of the U.S) to see Mexico become a failed state, as our consumption of these drugs and our “legalized weapons program” feeds instabiltiy and chaos in Mexico. It is in the U.S.’s interest to watch itself fall into localised chaos, as gangs and violent criminal elements are empowered with unlimited cashflow. – As you say – All users of these substances are certainly criminals! Not perhaps recreational users, or individuals with a deeper underlying health issue. God says or – at least whispered in my ear “They are bad” – and bad is bad, so throw away the key – Americana morality is such pleasure to watch – it oozes that slimy warmth – “Studid is as stupid is”

Posted by marc | Report as abusive

what cannot be prevented, may as well be made legal and regulated to maintain order and safety, Giving control of the cannabis market to criminals sounds like a great idea. Way to go..

…………………………………………………………………………………..

economist and conservative icon Milton Friedman, who before his death told Forbes, “There is no logical basis for the prohibition of marijuana.” And: “It’s absolutely disgraceful to think of picking up a 22-year-old for smoking pot. More disgraceful is the denial of marijuana for medical purposes.”

If you support prohibition you support drug dealers.

Posted by clare | Report as abusive

The sad thing is that this notion only gets credibility when the government needs money, not when somebody realizes it is actually the right thing to do. If we did this, it would only be so that the government could have more of its drug of choice… your money. It won’t be long before it needs to increase the dose again.

Real integrity would be to legalize because it should be legal. If your politicians do it any other way, you can be assured that they didn’t do it for you. All the potheads would probably think so, though, and happily puff on down the street to the polls, waiting to cast an adoring vote.

Posted by Russ Ward | Report as abusive

So what if legalizing pot increases use? I’d rather deal with pot-smokers than drunks any day. I dare Congress to use Progress so boldly.

Posted by Adrien | Report as abusive

Now James is putting some thought into solutions rather than the “let them fail arguments”. Kudos.

Legalization is something that is supported by large groups of law enforcement and many governors of border states. No aspect of the War on Drugs is working. Not to mention, it is easier as a teenager to buy illegal drugs- than alcohol. How about the pills in the cabinet at home? Legalization won’t be easy, but it will help solve related problems.

It’s a shame making intelligent moves such as this are being held up for only political reasons. This makes me question Dems/Repubs value-add even further. Third party anyone? But that is a discussion for another day.

Posted by Matt | Report as abusive

Mexico and Columbia have been playing along the last decade but the cartels are coming back strong in both places. The economic crisis will deplete US funding and deprive the governments of the vast resources required to fight these wars. So not only is the Drug War costing us domestically, both states have broken and in danger of failing again. This will lead to more immigrants, more supply, lower prices, more demand… the cycle never ends.

The Drug War creates taxing side-effects in almost every corner of our society, from health care, to education, to real estate value, to general quality of life. Lifting the prohibition would send all the rats into hiding, and would be the best thing we can do to get out of this economic sinkhole.

Posted by sam | Report as abusive

i totally agree the amount of revenue in tax dollars would be incredible !

Posted by b | Report as abusive

This is a suggestion that’s been around for years, and I’m all for it. Read the Nurses’ comment above and that’s the whole story. But the US isn’t mature or intelligent enough to do any of it. On the same subject, the person who contributed the idea about sex workers has also the right idea. If we can grow up enough to accept the fact that these issues will be around forever, make them pay.

Posted by Andrew Franks | Report as abusive

The giants of the global economy have been hobbled and wobbled so perhaps a puff may alleviate some of their pain but taxing marijuana will not help a thing.

Obama’s fluffy speech did not help either as real problems require real solutions.

Sometimes it is difficult for people to make tough decisions but past Presidents have made them. Kennedy ordered the naval blockade of Cuba to end the missile crisis and it was a tough decision as war was the other possible outcome.

Right now there is a global financial crisis that requires clear mind tough decision making. Making tough decisions is not what is happening, instead all manner of fluffy thinking is taking place with the single objective of saving shareholders by propping up the banking industry and others (AIG and motor companies).

I trust you will get your mind back to the serious issues James as the Dow is down 50% from its high and heading towards 6600 or less. Marijuana tax wont save this.

Posted by Greg | Report as abusive

The answer should be obvious, Legalize. The war on drugs was a fail. It’s ridiculous to imply “fear of the unknown” into this debate as a counter argument. That’s just another reminder of the reefer madness. Cause fear and people will follow, right? “what if’s” you can not measure should not be a debatable objective. We can measure the failure of the drug war in $, we can measure the amount of $ that will benefit us by legalization.

Posted by Bliss | Report as abusive

The drug problem will never be eradicated just contained, we should also legalize prostitution and clean it up and tax it. Religion will step in the way of course. Plus all the vested interests in the private prison business and black ops that are feeding off the system will have their input.

Posted by matt | Report as abusive

Legalize it, tax it, regulate it, and subsidize it……..
The new jobs created, corporate farms, retail outlets (cannabis-r-us…sorry, couldn’t resist), FDA inspectors( I want that job, “yup, thats some bad ass weed”) and bureaucrats to write the laws.
End the forty-year war and put the money to a better use.

Posted by mark | Report as abusive

A parallel suggestion. At present a very high percentage of ‘speeding’ and other traffic tickets are intended as ‘revenue-enhancers’ but masquerade as safety measures and the revenue is split with the insurance companies who pocket a large part of the revenue as rate increases. Why not change the point system so that only serious safety issues result in a threat to license and/or insurance rate increases and at the same time increase the fines. Everyone issued a ticket for 10 mph over the limit knows the present system is a cynical exercise anyway, and wouldn’t be thrilled but probably be satisfied if they could pay more for a nuisance ticket which was treated like a parking ticket and didn’t raise their rates. The only obstacle I can see to such an approach is the insurance industry lobbyists–and that, I grant, is a non-trivial obstacle–but perhaps greed and the need for increased revenue by states and municipalities might trump it.

Posted by Not Silent Not Bob | Report as abusive

Legalization of marijuana(or any narcotic)= menticide. Menticide is just another oppression mechanism. We messed up big time when we legalized alcohol. Clearly quick gains and greed wins out. ALL drug trade stops if we’d be willing to assault the money transaction side of things first. Reminds me of the Chinese opium war days. Will we ever learn? And if we wanna fix the US economy…..how about bankruptcy reorganization for a start…then rebuild our infrastructure and industrial production base.This monetary system is DEAD. Try repaying a 1.5 quadrillion derivatives debt…and you’ll see what I mean.

Posted by JC | Report as abusive

This is to Ian Kemmish –
The hole in the logic that you seek is demand. In order for the traffickers to profit they must be able to sell the drugs. Heroin addicts are generally partial to their drug just like cocaine addicts (and so forth). Many will not replace one with the other, especially if there is less risk involved with staying with your preferred drug. This is unlike many material objects in the fact that you will not sway someone to a completely different product just by incorporating some features of an already popular product (ie mixing the 2 for a speedball). You may move some of the market share but the majority will stay partial to the experience they already enjoy. And that is going way beyond what California is debating. They are debating marijuana which has much different affects than the so labeled “hard” drugs. Many marijuana users do not and will not do anything harder. I myself smoke marijuana but do not drink alcohol because I do not enjoy its affects on my body. I understand the risks, dangers and damages from both and have made my decision to smoke marijuana instead of drink or use harder drugs and no piece of legislature will change that for me. I hope I have helped you.

Posted by Jason | Report as abusive

I believe passing this bill will definitely put the economy back on track.
Attn: David… you’re just crazy.
I don’t believe an earth grown plant could do so much harm to one that we’d have to throw him in jail for 5 years. that’s just nonsense.
I agree with QueZen…I don’t know not even 1 person out there in the world who has been hospitalized, died (overdose), or even came close with the use of MJ.
This is my 2 cents, put that in your grinder and roll it! (then of course smoke a nice fatty)!
Go Cali!!! Legalization Now!!

Posted by Jill | Report as abusive

There are many good points here.
Here are some stats: in 2005 there were 2.2M in prison at an annual cost of 30B
http://www.iop.pitt.edu/documents/fact%2 0sheets/Prison%20Fact%20Sheet%20LO%20RES .pdf
Each state will be different but this will give you a national average. With the majority of these prisoners being convicted of drug crimes of one nature or another one could save huge amounts while ensuring that truly violent criminals remain in prison.

First, I think the 64B MJ market is very low. I have see estimates for MJ as high as 70% of the entire drug black market. Right now MJ is the largest cash crop in California, Kentucky and Tennessee and is grown in each and every state of the union as a cash crop and not one dime is taxed. In addition we are dumping billions out of this country every single year when this money could be kept here if MJ was a legal crop.

As for savings in interdiction, I see reutilization of personal for investigation of real crime like murder, theft and rape. I see the states saving by not having to build more prisons. I see badly needed new jobs in brand new industry and a new tax base.

Even though other societies have legalized cocaine and opium without a social collapse I advocate we first start with MJ. Work out the issues then move on to opium and cocaine. This will cut deeply into the funding of criminals and terrorists. MJ can fall under the same constraints as tobacco and alcohol but cocaine and opium will most likely be dispensed from clinics given the OD possibility. Well, that never stopped alcohol so who knows.

If you want to make sure the White House hears this message you need to go to http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/
And let them know!

Posted by B.Free | Report as abusive

I agree with some of the comments above. It’s time to legalize Marijuana and prostitution. Marijuana because it’s far less dangerous than alcohol. Prostitution, because it should be allowed and taxed, when between two consenting adults. The tax revenue and cost savings would be in the billions. Hopefully, now that Obama is in office based on a younger, more open-minded voter base, these changes can happen. Counter that to the Republican, typically older, more inflexible voter base that has constrained realistic change that makes sense for the country.

Posted by Jason | Report as abusive

About time!
Go to the liquor store and pick up a doubie.
Of course usage will go up.
I do not buy off the streets.
Consequently, I do not buy – period.
If – it were legal – yes – I would buy!
Would I “abuse” it?
Heck no!
I drink – maybe consumming two bottles of wine per/yr.
Patterns of getting “stoned” would not differ.
I have been a proponent of legalization for years in terms of financial benefits for our country. Taking the demand from the grip of the drug lord – wow – how that could change things.
And here is the second pitch -
F L A T T A X
EVERYONE pays a base amount of tax – no deducts/incentive.
Legalization and flat tax could solve all our budget problems.

Posted by Eloise | Report as abusive

I think you really messed up on this one James, though usually your columns are very good.

The big problem with legalizing drugs is that drugs are the cause of many other crimes. The druggy that can’t afford his fix, burglarizes, home invades, armed robs, and kills to supply his need. You might say that pot is harmless. I have heard inklings that it might be much more toxic than cigarettes in causing cancer and other diseases and respiratory problems. There are also studies where lesser drugs lead to use of greater drugs.

Drugs are not alcohol. Alcohol is bad enough with all of the accompanying social problems, but legalization of drugs will be much worse. Our country is already almost too dangerous to live in, yeah why not step it up a notch. Good thinking James! God help save us from these kind of ignorant short-sighted solutions. Ask a cop what he thinks about this!

Posted by Stephen R. Bock | Report as abusive

If legalization causes cannabis use to go up at the expense of the competition, there should be significant savings on alcohol related catastrophic losses, including economic ones.
Like so many people are saying, and no one is really denying, alcohol is way more dangerous and deadly than cannabis. What kind of joke is this, to ban the safer substance and not only allow but heavily promote the clearly, clearly more dangerous substance? As they say, the emperor is, umm, not wearing any clothes. Talking about emperor alcohol lording it over cannabis, wearing bogus robes of justice that melt away in the sunlight. No more third class citizens!

Posted by newageblues | Report as abusive

Great article! The war on drugs was lost long before it even began… But it does provide a lot of people with jobs and assures organized crime a huge source of revenue. While we are at it leave Afghanistan and stop spending huge amounts of money protecting the opium trade! The Taliban were our buddies until they banned opium farming… then all the sudden they were enemies harboring terrorists! Now opium production in the country is at an all time high. Coincidence? I think not…

But, since the CIA has historically controlled the drug trade globally, and was set up initially to finance Wall Street with drug money, the chance of any of this legalization happening is very remote indeed…

Even so, just hearing mainstream media talk about the idea of legalization is a good start!

Posted by Donovan | Report as abusive

@greg
Here is where you and I will just have to disagree, I believe that the legalization of marijuana will help the money problem in this country significantly. Our prison systems are terribly over crowded, with the highest percentage of people on this earth locked away in the prison system, and the majority of those locked away for nothing more than victimless crimes such as marijuana use, the billions of dollars that we could be saving in tax payer money just on releasing those people would save us a a significant amount.
Also our police force is fighting a losing battle against the free market, because demand determines supply not the other way around. Our war on drugs is just another way for the government to tax us. unfourtunatly some people wont pull their heads out of there behinds for long enough for any of these “real” problems to be addressed and instead continue to focus on “fluff”

Posted by Jesse meredith | Report as abusive

“The waste and misery involved [in drug prohibition] must make it rival the sub-prime bubble as a misallocation of resources”. That’a nice way of putting it and looking at it.

Posted by newageblues | Report as abusive

As a long time nurse who has seen the misery of drug abuse I find the drug legalization arguments to be specious. How about legalizing every known harmful substance and then promote their use, taxing the product so that we have new sources of federal and state funding?
The light headed argument of legalizing known addictive agents glosses over that the user(s)must have income to support their habit, are gainfully employed and paying their taxes. Is anyone paying attention to the countless stories of lives ruined by addictive substance abuse? Where are the anti-smokers who rail against public tobacco use but do not bother to think that the same noxious gases and cancer risks are also associated with marijuana/hashish use? What about the neurochemical damage/memory loss associated with most known outlawed opiates and halluciogenics? If you thought that irresponsible behavior was a growing phenomenon in America now just wait for the decadent world of socially condoned alcohol and addictive drug use.

Posted by Steve | Report as abusive

Legalization would do something else not mentioned. It would force proper labeling so that so many people wouldn’t die as a result of their uninformed decisions to use said drugs.
I used to be a heroin addict and spent a great deal of time breathing into the mouths and thumping chests of people who over dosed on a completely unlabeled substance. Most of my then “comrades” would simply let them die or toss their corpses into dumpsters out of fear of prosecution for “manslaughter” simply because they were there when the dead person took to much. It’s OK to let them die? I quit using thanks to treatment and anyone else can to if they want. Treatment could be EASILY funded for EVERYONE who wanted it.

Posted by MRAmell | Report as abusive

Another thing legalization could accomplish is standardization. many addicts die because one day they get one dose, the next day what looks exactly the same will be ten times more potent and the next day it’s back to stepped on garbage and so on. That’s the main reason heroin addicts are completely unable to stop using when it’s street level heroin. The quality or purity is NEVER the same from day to day.

Posted by MRAmell | Report as abusive

Ironically, I think it would be safer to medicalize heroin and cocaine first. You don’t want a situation in which marijuana becomes legal and minors start using heroin or cocaine because it is easier to obtain than the legalized marijuana and alcohol. Often minors use marijuana because it is easier to obtain than legalized alcohol.

Marijuana will likely come first anyway, but some method must be found to guard against this negative potential side-effect.

Posted by Winchester73 | Report as abusive

I have thought for a long time that saving money on drug enforcement and making money on collection of tax revenue on sales of the drugs would be a very effective way to shore up finances for our government. We don’t have to allow all drugs. Just grant exclusive rights to produce pot to tobacco companies. They have infrastructure, means, and land to make it into a successfull business. It will also reduce other crime associated with pot selling…. I know that in the past Goerge Schultz advocated legalization of drugs but it never got tracktion in neither party…

Posted by Anna | Report as abusive

FACT: Peanut butter has caused more deaths in 2009 than marijuana use.

Studies have shown marijuana smoke does not cause cancer, however it can cause respiratory complications, so can dust, so does every single smoke stack in the entire world.

FOR OR AGAINST decriminalization contact your elected officials. Tell them you demand the decriminalization of marijuana. Talking about it does nothing. People make change not politicians.

To Dave, you seem like a very informed intelligent individual, please share your opinions with anyone that will listen.

Posted by gerald | Report as abusive

Aren’t you the guy who said that bank nationalization was a 100% sure thing? Are you being paid to write this garbage? Please do us a favor, find another profession. I heard Walmart is hiring greeters.

Posted by Jockey | Report as abusive

If marijuana use is to be legalized in California, where will the marijuana come from? Mexico? Is it legal to grow marijuana in Mexico? Where will the supply come from? Who will be allowed to grow it to supply legally those who wish to use it? Who will purchase it, since it will continue to be a controlled substance (like tobacco) if the supply in California is unable to meet the demand? Will there be any quality control? Who is going to control the quality?
What do you think will happen socially? Everybody will come to California to get stoned out in the open (not a big difference from today but…) there will be massive drug tourism since everywhere else it’s forbidden.
Will smoking a joint in the street be allowed? Will it be permitted only in coffee houses, like the Netherlands, or at home? Will the non-users be happy with the fact that it’s legal?

Will there be a statewide referendum asking voters directly if they wish to de-criminalize marijuana, and if yes, what would be the conditions to impose? California really needs to tap into the direct response of californians regarding this issue.

Posted by Dan | Report as abusive

If drug use can’t be stopped in the highly controlled enviroment of the Prison System, is reasonable to assume it can be accomplished in the public arena? In these trying times, maybe we need to step back, take a breath and reprioritize our law enforcement goals. Bernie Maddoff has hurt far more people than some guy in his house smoking a joint I suspect.

Posted by Burnerjack | Report as abusive

Dear Mr. Saft:

Let me express my disappointment that you minimize your arguments by saying that you are partially-joking.

I am a physician working in a prison (which is why I am posting this anonymously).

To begin with, there is no evidence that criminalization of drug use has had any significant impact on abuse. Furthermore, most of what people fear from the legalization of stigmatized recreational drug use is the product of the misguided and ineffectual “War on Drugs.” On top of that, “War” is more than a figure of speech, with suspension of civil liberties, paramilitary units in our cities, and covert operations in other nations that range from shameful to heinous. It should also be noted that gangs and organized crime depend upon the illegal status of these drugs.

While it is widely acknowledged that Prohibition allowed a petty prostitution and numbers racket to become the once fearsome Mafia (which took another 50 years, after the end of prohibition, to control), few people have the courage to point out the cause-and-effect relationship between the contemporary prohibition and gangs (To your credit, you are one of the few to point out that the “War on Drugs” is incompatible with the “War on Terror.”). In my home state, alone (not known as a gang hotbed), there are more than 300 separate gangs. Whatever their side-issues, most, if not all, are about controlling profits from the illegal drug trade. Without the “War on Drugs,” they would be little more than Boy Scouts with tattoos.

Tobacco is the most addictive drug known, and its health costs far exceed those of illicit drugs. Not only is tobacco legal, but it is subsidized. Perversely, the United States government even imposes sanctions upon nations that try to keep “our” drug crop out, sanctioning those nations that it deems not to do enough to keep up the prices and profits for terrorists and other criminals.

Drug abuse should be a medical problem, not a legal one. Get government out of it.

Posted by Dr. Who? | Report as abusive