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December 2005
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Blind spot

Mark Kleiman misses it again. He’s at a conference on “drug markets and violent crime.” He reports:

Most interesting new idea: In New York City, where selling cocaine is a felony but selling cannabis or untaxed cigarettes is a misdemeanor, [intensive] street-level drug law enforcement has succeeded in driving the cocaine market indoors, resulting in a substantial decrease in violence. However, dealers in pot and smuggled cigarettes aren’t afraid of the cops, so they have kept doing business outdoors.

Result: substantial violence around sales of pot and untaxed cigarettes. (As usual, the violence is often ascribed to “turf battles” or business disputes, but in fact turns out mostly to be routine interpersonal disputes among angry young men with guns.)

Now this is interesting. And it’s fascinating to see cigarettes in this equation, as New York has one of the most (if not the most) drastic cigarette taxes in the country. New York State is 8th in the country with $1.50 per pack in taxes, and New York City adds an additional$1.50, bringing it to $3 per pack in taxes.
But now Mark tries to oddly use the cigarette example as a way to stop… well… people like me.

[Note to supporters of replacing drug prohibition with taxation and regulation: the untaxed-cigarette problem suggests one limit to that strategy, since a high tax can generate as nasty an illicit market as a prohibition does.]

Does that suggest perhaps that the amount of tax has to be taken into consideration? I mean, Mark even said it: “…since a high tax…”
Not when you’ve got a blind spot that you can drive a truck through. Even while admitting both the “high tax” and the “one limit” qualifiers, he dismisses legalization and regulation out-of-hand.
His conclusion?

The right policy response to the problem isn’t obvious. Making it a felony to sell pot or untaxed cigarettes seems extreme. But how else can those dealers be forced to keep their heads down, thus avoiding violence and neighborhood disruption?

The right policy response isn’t obvious? Yeah, it sure is tough to figure out. Let’s see…

  • Strict Prohibition: Too extreme.
  • Light Prohibition: Doesn’t get them off the streets.
  • Extemely High taxation: Encourages black markets.
  • ???:

Nope. Mark can’t quite come up with anything to put in that fourth option.
(Here’s a hint, Mark. There are many places in the country where cigarette smuggling isn’t a black-market item. You might want to take a look at what happens when the tax rates aren’t extreme.)

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