Will: Legalizing weed worth considering

By George Will, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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Amelioration of today’s drug problem requires Americans to understand the significance of the 80/20 ratio. Twenty percent of American drinkers consume 80 percent of the alcohol sold here. The same 80-20 split obtains among users of illicit drugs.

About 3 million people -- less than 1 percent of America’s population -- consume 80 percent of illegal hard drugs. Drug trafficking organizations can be most efficiently injured by changing the behavior of the 20 percent of heavy users, and we are learning how to do so. Reducing consumption by the 80 percent of casual users will not substantially reduce the northward flow of drugs or the southward flow of money.

More Americans are imprisoned for drug offenses or drug-related probation and parole violations than for property crimes. And although America spends five times more jailing drug dealers than it did 30 years ago, the prices of cocaine and heroin are 80 percent to 90 percent lower than 30 years ago.

In “Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know,” policy analysts Mark Kleiman, Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken argue that imprisoning low-ranking, street-corner dealers is pointless: A $200 transaction can cost society $100,000 for a three-year sentence. And imprisoning large numbers of dealers produces an army of people who, emerging from prison with blighted employment prospects, can only deal drugs. Which is why, although a few years ago Washington, D.C., dealers earned an average of $30 an hour, today they earn less than the federal minimum wage ($7.25).

Rethinking policy

Kleiman, Caulkins and Hawken say that in developed nations, cocaine sells for about $3,000 per ounce -- almost twice the price of gold. And the supply of cocaine, unlike that of gold, can be cheaply and quickly expanded. But in the countries where cocaine and heroin are produced, they sell for about 1 percent of their retail price in America. If cocaine were legalized, a $2,000 kilogram could be FedExed from Colombia for less than $50 and sold profitably in America for a small markup, and a $5 rock of crack might cost 25 cents. Criminalization drives the cost of the smuggled kilogram in America up to $20,000. But then it retails for more than $100,000.

People used to believe enforcement could raise drug prices but doubted that higher prices would decrease consumption. Now, they know consumption declines as prices rise but wonder whether enforcement can substantially affect prices. They urge rethinking drug-control enforcement, prevention and treatment.

And cartels have money for corrupting enforcement, because drugs are cheap to produce and easy to renew. So it is not unreasonable to consider modifying a policy that gives hundreds of billions of dollars a year to violent organized crime.

Marijuana probably provides less than 25 percent of the cartels’ revenues. Legalizing it would take perhaps $10 billion from some bad people, but the cartels would still make much more money from cocaine, heroin and meth than they would lose from marijuana legalization.

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, a messy, mendacious semi-legalization that breeds cynicism regarding law. In 1990, 24 percent of Americans supported full legalization. Today, 50 percent do.

Would the public health problems resulting from legalization be a price worth paying for injuring the cartels and reducing the cost of drug-law enforcement?

George F. Will is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Email: georgewill@washpost.com.