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October 11, 2006 - Durango Herald (CO)

Legalizing Pot Makes Budgetary Sense

By Robert Sonora, assistant professor of economics and research associate at the Office of Economic Analysis and Business Research at Fort Lewis College.

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This election year, Colorado voters have the opportunity to decide whether or not to make it legal to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, reducing the penalty from a petty offense to nothing.

Opponents of this measure, Amendment 44 on the November ballot, contend that legalizing dope would have a negative impact on Colorado's children. Implicitly, they argue that the increasing costs associated with marijuana usage will only rise should the law pass.

So, what are the human costs of marijuana use relative to other controllable "bad habits"? According to a 2004 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the leading cause of death is tobacco followed by obesity and alcohol, accounting for 18 percent, 17 percent, and 4 percent of all deaths, respectively, in 2000. Last on the list, after firearms and auto accidents, is illicit drug use, about 0.7 percent of all deaths.

The costs of marijuana use include lost productivity, health problems and criminal activity. But these costs are less than any of the other "big three" killers. And when comparing the incidence of violent crimes between alcohol and marijuana, research shows that aggression increases with alcohol. In 2002, drunkenness was a contributing factor in about 30 percent of violent crimes, whereas, aggression declines with bong hits - despite scenes portrayed in Reefer Madness .

Similarly, looking at the drug war as a whole, Noble Prize-winning economist Gary Becker and his co-author Appeals Judge Richard Posner, both at the University of Chicago, estimate that the direct cost to taxpayers is $100 billion per year.

They further argue that legalizing illicit drugs and taxing them would have a larger impact on reducing drug use and generate $100 billion in taxes.

This does not include other indirect costs, such as the U.S. maintaining troops in Colombia and Bolivia. We must also consider the costs associated with drug warlord infighting: this year in Nuevo Laredo, there will likely be more than 300 drug-related murders, Prohibition-era mob scenes revisited.

And what are the benefits of legalizing the dreaded weed? In an open letter to the president and Congress, which was signed by more than 500 economists, three Nobel Laureates, including noted "Beatnik" Milton Friedman, Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron argues that legalization would save the economy about $8 billion in enforcement costs and generate about $6 billion in taxes.

Additionally, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, this despite a decline in violent crimes. One in 37 Americans is currently imprisoned, but at a cost. In 2000, the cost of incarcerating non-violent drug offenders was about $24 billion, six times the amount spent on child care.

In many states, more is spent on incarceration than education, and with questionable results.

A study for the RAND Corporation found that $1 million spent on sentencing results in a decline in cocaine consumption, but only 13 percent of what would have been achieved if that same amount had been spent on treatment -- a poor use of already-scarce resources.

Given the relative harm that a alcohol and tobacco do to society and economy, it's hard to understand why marijuana is illegal. Historically, racism and discrimination largely explain anti-dope laws, not costs to society.

The "gateway" drug argument is similarly specious; for example, less than 1 percent of marijuana users become cocaine addicts.

It is, however, disingenuous to believe that dope is harmless. The tar content of Mary Jane is higher than cigarettes; there is a potential for psychological dependency -- though not physiological as with alcohol or cigarettes.

And pot smoking has one goal, to get high. Whereas a percentage of drinking is done for the pleasure of the taste -- it's hard to imagine dope smokers wondering which better accompanies salmon, Thai stick or Silver Haze.

Ultimately, the best solution is undoubtedly, complete abstention, but of everything, not just marijuana.

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