More From George Will on the Costs of Drug Prohibition


In his second column on drug legalization, George Will still does not take a clear position, but he acknowledges several salient facts about prohibition:

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 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….

Dealers, a.k.a. "pushers," have almost nothing to do with initiating drug use by future addicts; almost every user starts when given drugs by a friend, sibling or acquaintance…..

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 the United States. If cocaine were legalized, a $2,000 kilogram could be FedExed from Colombia for less than $50 and sold profitably here for a small markup from its price in Colombia, and a $5 rock of crack might cost 25 cents. Criminalization drives the cost of the smuggled kilogram in the United States up to $20,000. But then it retails for more than $100,000….

Cartels have oceans of money for corrupting enforcement because drugs are so 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.

While noting that "hard drugs" such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine account for the lion's share of cartel profits, Will does not broach the possibility of eliminating those black markets and the evils associated with them. (His last column on drug policy suggested he believes that legalizing those drugs would lead to an unacceptable increase in addiction.) But Will does address marijuana law reform, calling medical marijuana "a messy, mendacious semi-legalization that breeds cynicism regarding law." At the same time, he seems open to a more honest (and more tolerant) policy:

Would the public health problems resulting from legalization be a price worth paying for injuring the cartels and reducing the costs of enforcement? We probably are going to find out.

Will notes that public support for legalizing marijuana—currently around 50 percent, according to Gallup—has more than doubled since 1990. 

Will draws heavily on Kleiman et al.'s book, which was published last year. Kleiman and Caulkins–professors of public policy at UCLA and Carnegie Mellon, respectively—are not libertarians by any means, but they are realists who are genuinely interested in the facts, including the actual consequences of prohibition (as opposed to its supposedly noble intentions). Kleiman's approach is summed up in the title of his 1992 book Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results, where he calls for the legalizaton of marijuana via a ration-card scheme. Caulkins has for years been documenting the costs of an excessively punitive approach to drugs and the limits of supply-side enforcement efforts. That a conservative commentator of George Will's influence is paying attention to their work bodes well for the drug policy debate.

I discussed Will's previous column on drug policy last week. Reason's July package on criminal justice included an interview with Kleiman in which he argued that "long prison terms are wasteful government spending."