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.