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Will-ful legalization

In George Will’s previous nonsensical column, he ended by saying:

“A subsequent column will suggest a more economic approach to the “natural” problem of drugs.”

It appears that he’s now come out with it: The 80/20 ratio: rethinking America’s drug-control strategy

The first half of the article could well have been written by Mark Kleiman – in fact, it’s mostly cribbed from his book.

The one thing that Will really messes up on (because it’s what Kleiman always gets wrong) is the notion that alcohol companies market to the 20% of heavy users who consume the lion’s share of product, and that the future of drug legalization will end up with imaginary unrestricted drug companies doing the same thing. The false assumption is that economic self-preservation advertising will be directed at directly causing problematic use.

Part of what Kleiman gets wrong is in not understanding the difference between brand marketing and product marketing. Alcohol companies have no interest in advertising their product (ie, “use alcohol”) to heavy users. They already have them in their pocket.

It’s like when I advertise theatre productions. I don’t need to aim my advertising at the theatre-lovers in town – I just need to inform them that we’re doing theatre and what the dates and times are. They’ll be there. I do, however, need to advertise to the casual theatre-goer and get them to come to the theatre. Sure, they’re harder to reach, but that’s the only way I’ll maximize my audience.

So do alcohol companies do any marketing to heavy users? Sure. Brand marketing (in fact, brand marketing makes up the vast majority of their efforts). That’s where they get you to drink Bud Light instead of Miller Light (not in addition to). It isn’t changing the use of alcohol, only what brand is getting the larger share of the market.

So George Will starts out with an interesting set of figures, but one dealing with a flawed premise.

Then, he steps forward with his promised economic approach. Yes, the following mish-mash is his actual writing. It’s like you can see the wheels turning as he tries to transform Kleiman’s theses into arguments against legalization, but then can’t actually come up with a very good reason to oppose legalization. As he continues to sort through the facts, he finds himself kind of defending legalization, in a back-handed way. Finally, with some disdain, he indicates that it’s probably inevitable. It’s really quite curious:

People used to believe enforcement could raise 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 the drug-control triad of enforcement, prevention and treatment because we have been much too optimistic about all three.

And 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.

Marijuana probably provides less than 25 percent of the cartels’ revenues. Legalizing it would take perhaps $10 billion from some bad and violent people, but the cartels would still make much more money from cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines 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. In 2010, in California, where one-eighth of Americans live, 46 percent of voters supported legalization, and some opponents were marijuana growers who like the profits they make from prohibition of their product.

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.

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34 comments to Will-ful legalization

  • Dano

    Wow! Even George seems resigned to the final outcome, although his writing seems a little down and depressed about this path we are on.

    Come on George! Cheer up now. It’s not all that bad. Have a seat on Pete’s couch and let’s discuss the issues. Care for a brownie?

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  • Francis

    Wow. What an embarrassing train-wreck of a column.

    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.

    Um… missing the obvious, George? By your own admission, the vast majority of people who use drugs, whether licit or illicit, do so casually and in moderation. So yes, let’s absolutely focus our efforts and resources on the tiny minority of users for whom drug use becomes problematic. Let’s also leave everyone else the f*** alone! (And when I say we should focus our attention on problem users, I mean we should actually try to help them – not that we should continue our current policy of violently attacking and caging them.)

    Americans’ experience with marketing’s power inclines them to favor prohibition and enforcement over legalization and marketing of drugs.

    Citation needed. Americans’ (dwindling) support for the drug war doesn’t come from their belief in the magical power of marketing. It comes from fear, ignorance, and a lifetime supply of government propaganda. And Americans’ experience with the disaster of prohibition is increasingly inclining them in favor of reform. Also, you do realize that legalization doesn’t necessarily mean that we allow commercials for Acme-brand heroin to be aired during Saturday morning cartoons, right? You only have to look at the enormous restrictions that are placed on tobacco advertising to see that.

    Now they know consumption declines as prices rise but wonder whether enforcement can substantially affect prices.

    Any upwards effect on price that can be achieved through “enforcement” could also be achieved through taxation. The latter approach raises billions in revenue for the state and produces a peaceful, regulated market. The former costs taxpayers billions and creates a violent black market nightmare. Which do you prefer?

    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.

    You haven’t provided any convincing evidence that legalization would increase public health problems. But as least you recognize that you’re losing. That warms my heart. You must be reading your own columns. If my arguments in support of reform were as weak as yours in defense* of prohibition, I’d expect to lose too.

    *(At least I think he was trying to defend prohibition. It’s hard to say for sure. They were that bad.)

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    • Peter

      Reading George Will reminds me of his boss, Ronald Reagan’s reliance on Reader’s Digest for “common-sense,” simplistic truisms which generally turn out to be the opposite of true.

      Will’s statement that “Now they know consumption declines as prices rise but wonder whether enforcement can substantially affect prices,” is definitely open to question, at least with the most problematic group of drug users. This group is going to do whatever it takes to secure a hit, and when the price does up, their activity in the form of property crime increases. The only winners are the major criminal suppliers who increase their profits in direct proportion to the “success” of enforcement efforts. The losers are everyone else.

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  • kaptinemo

    Once again, it’s what I’ve come to call the “3.8 Rule”. As in the reluctance of prohibitionists to admit that 2 + 2 = 4, not the half-assed 3.8 they keep insisting on.

    In the end, all their labyrinthine, Byzantine mental convolutions to preserve prohibition are relegated to the trash-bin marked “REALITY”. As in the very market forces so many of them publicly swear fealty to (but, in this case, privately fear) render their efforts as significant as those of clerics that spent their lives debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

    The market, in the form of the ‘black market’, makes all their strenuous brain-burning efforts completely void. Economics is an incredibly impersonal force; it doesn’t give a rat’s arse what you think, it just keeps going merrily along, oblivious to their indignant, impotent bleatings.

    That force, when inverted by illegality, inevitably drives the violence in that ‘black market’. It cares not one whit about the intellectual wattage of those determined (and/or paid) to defend the indefensible. And I suspect that that rankles most of those with a pretense of thinking they can rationally explain their support for continuing failed, irrational policies. The cognitive dissonance must get crushing at times.

    So, every time I hear one of these LameStream Media ‘pundits’ mouthing off with the typical prohibition-supporting blather, I keep recalling Paul Krugman’s observation that such people would sound smart to a stupid person. But ignorance squared or cubed is still ignorance, only magnified. And as pundits, they, by ‘virtue’ of their supposedly superior intellectual talents, DON’T HAVE THE FREAKIN’ EXCUSE OF BEING ABLE TO PLEAD IGNORANCE TO BEGIN WITH..

    If stupidity is not a factor, then all that remains is intellectual prostitution for what amounts to 30 pieces of silver. And all of society, not one man, is what’s being betrayed.

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  • Francis

    Calling Will’s column a defense of prohibition may not have been entirely fair. I’m honestly not sure what it was. Pete, I think you summed it up best:

    It’s like you can see the wheels turning as he tries to transform Kleiman’s theses into arguments against legalization, but then can’t actually come up with a very good reason to oppose legalization. As he continues to sort through the facts, he finds himself kind of defending legalization, in a back-handed way. Finally, with some disdain, he indicates that it’s probably inevitable. It’s really quite curious.

    It’s truly bizarre. And what makes it even weirder is the fact that he promised to offer an actual plan in the previous column: “A subsequent column will suggest a more economic approach to the ‘natural’ problem of drugs.” How subsequent are we talking? Please don’t tell me THIS was supposed to be that column? WTF?

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    • Matthew Meyer

      Yeah, seeing how he was enamored of Kleiman et al., I kept waiting for him to say we need to do Kleiman’s idea of “taxing violence” amongst the cartels, and maybe throw more dollars at treatment. I ended up supposing that maybe that column is still coming.

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      • Francis

        “Taxing” cartel violence? That’s not a bad idea. Let’s start with the feds. They’re the biggest cartel and the most heavily reliant on violence for maintaining their power. (The other guys at least sell a product other than fear.)

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        • Matthew Meyer

          Kleiman doesn’t call it that, but that’s what it is: making life more difficult for the most violent cartels, and letting them know beforehand what’s coming. The idea being that the cartels will become less violent because it’s bad for business to be violent.

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        • Francis

          Oh, I get what he means. But it’s still just adding a few bells and whistles to the unworkable Rube Goldberg machine of prohibition. “Taxing” cartel violence sounds good, but the problem is that prohibition inherently subsidizes violence.

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  • Freeman

    Curious indeed.

    Similarly, Kleiman recently said (about marijuana):

    I’m not a fan of alcohol-style legalization – I’m pretty dissatisfied with current alcohol policy, which gives brewers and distillers strong incentives to create and support addiction to the drug they sell, and to oppose any measures that might reduce drinking by heavy drinkers – and would prefer a non-commercial model with growing for personal use and by consumer-owned co-operatives. But it may be the case that full legalization is now that most potent of all social forces: a bad idea whose time has come.

    Mark has responded to Will’s latest column and he thinks HOPE is the answer to everything. No surprises there.

    The good news is that we [k]now precisely how to do this: frequent, random drug testing and very short jail stays for each incident of detected use for heavily drug-involved felons on probation, parole, or pretrial release. [...] That’s the way to escape the unpleasant choice Will sketches between enriching a few dealers and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of others by maintaining prohibition or risking a huge increase in drug abuse by alcohol-style legalization.

    It’s unclear how he envisions the legal status of these drugs to work out, but from his previous statements I take it he’d either favor leaving them illegal and attempting to focus enforcement efforts toward the 20% who supposedly do 80% of the drugs and cirme, however that’s supposed to work, or some sort of complex decriminalization scheme like the marijuana co-ops he described.

    The drug policy wonks at RBC are all about this theory of a kinder, gentler prohibition. I remain skeptical.

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    • Francis

      I see. The solution is not to stop using violence to address what is really a medical and health issue. The solution is smaller (but more frequently administered) doses of violence. We just need to tweak the formula.

      What is wrong with these people?

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    • TrebleBass

      “heavily drug-involved felons on probation, parole, or pretrial release.”

      one thing he doesn’t explain is are these felons guilty of other crimes or of drug crimes? and how does one assess how heavily they use drugs?

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  • HoldMeBack

    I want to bang their fucking heads together!

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    • Duncan20903

      Quit being selfish. You hold one while I grab the other. Didn’t your mama teach you to share?

      Well-liked Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  • claygooding

    Some of the comments were about the reader’s disbelief that Will’s could back off prohibition that much.

    Been hitting the SA/CA conference articles and spreading my Wake up America msg of cheer and good wishes for prohibition’s supporters.

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  • Metabaron

    WEhoa man! Kleiman almost precisely describes the spanish Cannabis social club model. Thats progressive! Oh whait, he was taqlking about alcohol, nevermind.

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  • MaineGeezer

    There is nothing that says we would have to permit advertising of drugs. I think the best thing we could do from a public health standpoint is:

    1. Establish legal regulated sale of all drugs, the sales model varying according to the drug.
    2. Prohibit all advertising for all drugs, including alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceudicals, except for point-of-sale advertising.

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  • Benjamin

    This column is almost schizophrenic. Half the sentences have NOTHING to do with the immediately preceding sentence.

    Worst of all, he does not mention two obvious benefits:

    1) Saving money on enforcement and gaining money on taxation.

    2) Reducing the scope of “Big Government”, something Will has been advocating for years and years… At least, when it’s convenient for him to do so.

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  • primus

    Pretzel logic at its finest. Of course, when most people have no concept of logic, this works. Unfortunately.

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  • Randy

    George Will is proof that drug war propaganda works. We’ve been bombarded with the idea that drug use isn’t just risky, but that those risks are inevitable. Got that? Drug warriors don’t argue that something might happen. It’s not a matter of “if”, but a matter of “when”.

    Reinforcing all the INEVITABLE bad outcomes from drug use is the fact that responsible drug users have to hide their usage to keep themselves off the radar of John Law. The general public are mostly oblivious to the billions of times drugs are used annually and nothing bad happens afterwards. Obviously the drug warriors aren’t going to point this out. To them “Use is Abuse”. Throw in police dramas that regurgitate drug war nostrums uncritically (The Wire excepted) and have done so decades, it is little wonder that it’s taking so long to change minds on this issue.

    In short, the drug warriors have managed to scare the bejezzus out of a large swath of the population by falsely claiming that the very real risks of drug use are inevitable and by denying or downplaying the fact that most drug use is done responsibly or benignly.

    Hopefully George will finally realize that he’s been fed lies and half-truths about drugs. Once he does, and I think he’s on his way, he’s gonna feel duped just like I did and be angry about it. In the mean time, he is pretty early in his journey so he’s still coming to grips with some strange notions for him.

    So come on in George, the water is fine in the drug law reform pool. BYO trunks. We aren’t nudists. Or some of us aren’t. lol

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  • Rita

    The only effect drug laws have on drug use is to make it more dangerous. Which is precisely what they are meant to do.

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  • darkcycle

    OT but important… Supreme Court refuses to hear challenges to the Kha decision:
    http://www.thedailychronic.net/2011/7350/supreme-court-state-medical-marijuana-laws-not-preempted-by-federal-law/

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  • Duncan20903

    .
    .

    Virginia’s State of Mind: Why is it that the people who didn’t inhale are considered to be more qualified?

    By Virginia Russell Community Contributor
    Posted April 12, 2012

    George Will has been vocal on the topic of drug legalization and recently wrote an article debating the merits of drug legalization in the Washington Post.

    Will shadows his ignorance of illicit drugs with an age old writer’s jedi mind trick: if a multitude of obscure polysyllabic words and complex sentence structures are used in an article, the reader will assume that the author is intelligent and therefore must be correct. In this instance however, no amount of jedi skills could mask the fact that Will just doesn’t know a whole lot about drugs, which would be good, if he weren’t writing about drugs.
    /snip/

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  • Servetus

    George Will Says: “Consider current policy concerning the only addictive intoxicant currently available as a consumer good — alcohol.

    George forgot to mention the addictive intoxicant nicotine, via tobacco smoke, which kills over 400,000 Americans every year. The topic of Will’s piece, marijuana, by comparison, is neither addictive nor an intoxicant. Cannabis is effectively non-toxic because its active ingredients do not target the central nervous system, nor does marijuana harm other vital areas of human physiology.

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

    Pinpointing accurate numbers regarding a widespread, surreptitious activity is a fool’s errand. Even if George Will gets the numbers right, the ONDCP/DEA is unlikely to confirm any truthful figures. Under prohibition, the government rarely views the truth about drugs as being a useful tool for enforcement. Good or bad drug, it doesn’t matter.

    The idea is to legalize and regulate all drugs, starting with marijuana, because the best way to eliminate crime is to eliminate each and every simple opportunity that allows crime to exist. Prohibition, in this case, allows a lot of crimes to exist besides drug crimes, the biggest one being the crime against humanity that ensues from the civil rights violations perpetrated on citizens by their governments when enforcing drug laws.

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  • Peter

    Lets not forget George’s role in Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No Campaign,” and his membership of the board of the Nancy Reagan Drug Abuse Fund. He must long for the good old 1980s when being a prohibitionist was so much simpler and less controversial.

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  • Matthew Meyer

    OT, but relevant to recent discussion on the couch.

    I wonder if Sanho Tree is right:

    “I think the US strategy of Brownfield and the State Department will be to say that legalization was brought up and rejected by the Latin American leaders,” offered Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. “They will use dichotomous rhetoric, they will try to maneuver the discussion into either prohibition or heroin in vending machines, but this is about the whole spectrum of regulatory possibilities. That’s what we need to be talking about instead of that false dichotomy.”
    http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/2012/apr/11/historic_challenge_drug_war_loom

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  • Ed Dunkle

    “In 1991, Will married Mari Maseng. They have one child, a son named David, born in 1992, and live in the Washington D.C. area. Maseng is a political consultant and speechwriter, currently in charge of communications for the Rick Perry 2012 presidential campaign. She earlier worked on Michele Bachmann’s 2012 presidential campaign, and offered her services to the Mitt Romney 2012 campaign. She previously worked for Reagan as a presidential speechwriter, deputy director of transportation, and Assistant to the President for Public Liaison. She also was a former communications director for Robert Dole.”

    I wonder if his wife signed off on this column.

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    • Duncan20903

      .
      .

      I could have lived my entire life without imagery of George Will getting naked and been a happy man.

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  • OT…

    5 police officers shot, 1 killed, in drug raid on Greenland, NH, residence

    this is a story happening right now… the officer killed is reported to be the city of Greenland, NH’s chief of police

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  • Emma

    In George’s original WP column the headline is “Should the U.S. legalize hard drugs?” He’s arguing that heroin and cocaine should be legally regulated in order to break the cartels.

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