Are We Ready to Legalize Drugs?

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

Steven Levitt has thought a lot about the war on drugs:

Levitt: And it’s a great question to philosophize on I think, because…most people approach it from a more moral or philosophical point of view, of should drugs be legal? The libertarian perspective says maybe drugs should just be legal, maybe people should be able to do whatever they want. That’s what Milton Friedman thought. Other people think it’s immoral, there’s something wrong with drugs. But you know, that’s not the Freakonomics way. The Freakonomics way is to actually look at the data. And I do have a paper with Roland Fryer and a former student of mine, Paul Heaton, and Kevin Murphy. And we set out to look at the crack epidemic and the costs of the crack epidemic from a purely practical perspective. How bad was it? Do the places that had a lot of crack, did really bad things happen there, and why? And it was really interesting; it was really one of the most surprising results. Because almost all of the big costs that we saw had to do not with the consumption of crack itself. Consumption of crack had some negative effects, but they weren’t great. The really big social costs had to do with the prohibition of the legality of crack. And so it was the case that the greatest costs we saw were the violence related to the fighting for property rights, and the imprisonment of people. And it was interesting because it doesn’t say that legalization is necessarily a good thing. That’s a big jump to have. But it says that in a regime where drugs are highly illegal, hard drugs like cocaine, in the U.S., the real costs that we feel then are the costs of the prohibition, not the costs of the use, because the prohibition is reasonably effective at lowering the use. Now what would happen if we got rid of the prohibition and let anybody and everybody use crack cocaine? I think that wouldn’t be a great outcome either.

Dubner: And you say that, and you say that because the nature of crack is destructive, more so than say marijuana, or no?

Levitt: Absolutely. So crack cocaine is a really devilish drug because it gives you such an intense high for such a short period of time that your desire is just to get high over and over and over. It’s highly addictive, and it’s really hard to function when you’re a crack addict. But what it makes me think is that this experimentation we’re doing now with policy towards drugs like marijuana, and potentially it would be expanded over time is a good idea. Because I think when it comes to marijuana, the social costs of the prohibition of marijuana are just really low. Very few people in the United States are being killed over marijuana. The gangs are not making their money off marijuana. Marijuana in some very real sense is too cheap. It’s too easy to grow yourself and so it isn’t the source of all of the ills that come with prohibition. And so, so the gains of legalizing marijuana for society are much smaller than the gains would be to legalizing cocaine if you could control how the outcome came.

Dubner: So let me ask you this, whenever I hear a police department or some organization representing law enforcement talk against legalizing marijuana, the skeptic in me says oh well that’s because prosecuting and pursuing marijuana is a big part of police work and if it were decriminalized then the police would get unfunded. Is that a ridiculous thought to have?

Levitt: No, I like the…We always think about incentives, and certainly if one of the incentives that a police department has is to be busy. We know there are a lot more police officers in places with a lot more crime. So if there was no crime to deal with there wouldn’t be many police officers. I mean, if you think about firefighters, talk about putting yourself out of a job, there aren’t any fires anymore. I don’t know what firefighters do all day. They’ve been pretty good I think at figuring out how to do things other than go put out fires. But, you know, you could imagine that if all the crime went away, the police would end up looking a lot more like firefighters than they would like police officers. And we just wouldn’t need that many of them around. So I think that’s sensible. But I also think that it’s deeper than that in that there is a mindset among the police which is that the law says that marijuana is illegal and it’s my job to uphold the law. And therefore marijuana is terrible.

Dubner: And Levitt let me just ask you one more thing before we move on about marijuana in particular. So Gallup polls, which are pretty consistent over time show that about 40 years ago, 12 percent of Americans favored marijuana legalization. And that number is up to 58 now. So almost five times as many. What do you think that represents, anything dramatic, or are we just seeing one of those gradual lines shifting that happens in society and nothing more than that?

Levitt: I think it’s a reaction to the fact that marijuana just hasn’t proven to be that damaging, that a lot of people smoke marijuana, it doesn’t ruin their lives, and they go on to be regular folks who no longer smoke marijuana. It’s just, a lot of it comes down to how much weight you put on the utility of the user. Right, if you really think that the people who are smoking a lot of dope are having a lot of fun with it, then probably you tip the calculus toward let them smoke it. Otherwise if you think that’s the wrong kind of fun, you shouldn’t count that, then you think it shouldn’t be legal. But in a lot of ways I think it comes down to that simple issue.

Dubner: And and Levitt just for the record, when’s the last time you smoked dope?

Levitt: Oh, man it’s been a long time. I think it’s been…I think it’s been…It’s been at least probably close to 20 years.

Dubner: If marijuana were totally and entirely decriminalized in Illinois and you could go to a nice little deli right outside the U. of C. there and buy some, would you do it tomorrow, or the next week?

Levitt: I would occasionally smoke, but it wouldn’t be a way of life I don’t think.

Dubner: would you like to say, try to play golf while stoned? Would that be a thrill for you?

Levitt: No, not at all. I take my golf pure.

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