Why George Soros Supports Legal Marijuana

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

The Wall Street Journal has published a piece by George Soros on why he supports legal marijuana. After glancing at its subtitle — We should invest in effective education rather than ineffective arrest and incarceration — my expectations dropped, but the article itself starts with a reasonable point:

Our marijuana laws are clearly doing more harm than good. The criminalization of marijuana did not prevent marijuana from becoming the most widely used illegal substance in the United States and many other countries. But it did result in extensive costs and negative consequences.

Law enforcement agencies today spend many billions of taxpayer dollars annually trying to enforce this unenforceable prohibition. The roughly 750,000 arrests they make each year for possession of small amounts of marijuana represent more than 40% of all drug arrests.

Regulating and taxing marijuana would simultaneously save taxpayers billions of dollars in enforcement and incarceration costs, while providing many billions of dollars in revenue annually. It also would reduce the crime, violence and corruption associated with drug markets, and the violations of civil liberties and human rights that occur when large numbers of otherwise law-abiding citizens are subject to arrest. Police could focus on serious crime instead.

Although I agree with the larger point, I feel compelled to play devil’s advocate on at least a few smaller points.

First, why is it a problem that 40% of all drug arrests are for small amounts of marijuana? I suspect that far more than 40% of the Americans who are in possession of drugs at any moment — maybe 90% — are holding nothing more than small amounts of marijuana. Should we expect small-time sellers to be dramatically harder to catch than big-time distributors?

Second, I find it disingenuous to refer to people arrested for marijuana possession as otherwise law-abiding citizens. In theory? Sure. In practice, law enforcement rarely comes into contact with otherwise law-abiding citizens. The people convicted for mere possession likely took a plea bargain or didn’t have enough evidence against them to justify a conviction for selling the drugs.

The rest of Soros’s argument seems aimed at mainstream liberals, not conservatives:

The racial inequities that are part and parcel of marijuana enforcement policies cannot be ignored. African-Americans are no more likely than other Americans to use marijuana but they are three, five or even 10 times more likely — depending on the city — to be arrested for possessing marijuana. I agree with Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP, when she says that being caught up in the criminal justice system does more harm to young people than marijuana itself. Giving millions of young Americans a permanent drug arrest record that may follow them for life serves no one’s interests.

Racial prejudice also helps explain the origins of marijuana prohibition. When California and other U.S. states first decided (between 1915 and 1933) to criminalize marijuana, the principal motivations were not grounded in science or public health but rather in prejudice and discrimination against immigrants from Mexico who reputedly smoked the “killer weed.”

Although the stat that African-Americans are no more likely than other Americans to use marijuana seems suspect, it’s largely irrelevant when discussing arrest rates for possessing marijuana, because, again, arrests and convictions for possession aren’t primarily about casual users but about low-end dealers.

I would expect the Journal to focus on the simple point that prohibition is almost always a worse policy, for its stated goals, than taxation.

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