Monday, January 18, 2010

Should the United States go to Pot? Si no, Por Que

Dr. David Nathan, a Princeton based psychiatrist who treats patients suffering from substance abuse, has come out on the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal for the decriminalization of marijuana.

Dr. Nathan is admirably candid about the potential baleful effects of the drug, and about the fact that those effects would be visited on some folks under a decriminalized regime. But he believes the costs of the status quo are greater than the benefits derived, and that the benefits of the change would be greater than the costs realized.

He may be right. One interesting piece of speculation in the article concerns the 'gateway drug' argument that usually accompanies discussions of whether or not to legalize (note the change from decriminalize to legalize; there is a difference, discussed below) marijuana. The gateway drug argument holds that marijuana use, not so dangerous in itself, leads to the use (which here is synonymous with abuse) of truly dangerous substances. Dr. Nathan says however that the gateway properties of marijuana may be attributable to nothing more than the fact that users who go to a dealer for marijuana may be upsold to other substances by the dealer. If he is right about that, then, as he states, legalization, insofar as it obviates the trip to the illicit dealer, removes the gateway effect.

All right. But what about those like Bill Bennett, who say things like this: Drug use is wrong because it enslaves the mind and imprisons the soul. And that on that account the state should not be in the business of serving the stuff up, or of making money by taxing the stuff if the market is private. The usual debating point to raise for folks on the other side from Bennett is to point to alcohol and say, "What about that?". Then Bennett's side says we can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. And anyway, if you don't like the effects of alcohol on society it is odd to take the position that it should take on a partner, even if we consider marijuana the lesser evil.

It is not clear which way the nation will go, but it is instructive to note that the choices we make will have some serious externalities, principally for Mexico.

Consider part of what is likely to happen if the United States legalizes marijuana: Mexico's ultra-violent drug cartels (the level of violence is a reflection of the level of money involved and of the reinforcing thrill uninstructed packs of young men are liable to take in perverse violence) will be devitalized to this extent: they currently get about half of their revenue from home-grown marijuana. Should that revenue disappear with the advent of a legal market, the gangs will be less able to intimidate, less able to name their price for cocaine shipments from Colombia, and more susceptible to ruin at the hands of law enforcement. By the way, the tragic rise to inordinate national prominence of the Mexican drug gang follows the U.S. sea-route interdiction efforts of cocaine originating from South America, which increased the cost of getting cocaine to the United States via that route and made the land route through Mexico economic.

Now consider what happens if the United States decriminalizes marijuana. That is to say, what if we decide that end users cannot be prosecuted but that the sale of the drug is still illegal. It might seem both large souled and practical to go this route. It may actually be those things. For us. But it is a nightmare scenario for Mexico. Demand will rise among Americans immune from prosecution, and the black market will get that much blacker, and Mexico will bleed itself white.

Thus does the future of marijuana's status in the United States serve as a reminder that this Leviathan can seldom commit itself to anything without also committing other nations to something else.

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