War on Drugs Needs a Makeover: How Legalizing Marijuana will Save the U.S. Economy

Recently, what has been noticeable on both sides of the Atlantic has been the lack of imagination when it comes to policy reform. When faced with the greatest financial crisis in decades, the British government ring-fenced the National Health Service from cuts; the coalitions attempts at moderate reforms to the British healthcare service have been strongly opposed. In the U.S. Obama’s administration has not only continued, but has more aggressively pursued expensive and inefficient policies; an interventionist foreign policy, deportations, and most notably, the war on drugs

The news is full of examples of how the black market is adapting to the economic situation, with many foreclosed homes now being bought by marijuana growers. Given that the war on drugs has been a complete failure, it is time for governments around the world to embrace new policies that would contribute positively to the economy, reduce crime, and increase the amount of freedoms people enjoy.

Marijuana growers are taking the economic downturn in stride. Safe from the fluctuations that affect financial institutions, the evidence indicates that more of the plant is being grown and sold. This makes economic sense, and there is little reason to think that similar patterns are not being seen in other markets.

The war on drugs has not only been a disaster because it has failed to fulfill its goals, but it has allowed for a worrying expansion on centralized federal power and the militarization of police.  President Obama came into office after a campaign that hinted at a more relaxed drug policy. However, Obama’s presidency has seen a crackdown on legal medical marijuana dispensaries, something that even Nancy Pelosi objects to. The war on drugs has given our police forces liscense to play soldier and participate in what seems to be one of their favorite hobbies — shooting dogs and kicking in doors. Budgets allocated to police allow officers to dress in paramilitary uniforms and purchase military style equipment.

The power that law enforcement has, and the inefficiencies of the war on drugs, demands a policy rethink. Decriminalizing, or even better, legalizing drugs would produce ten of billions of dollars every year in tax revenue (assuming currently illegal drugs would have taxes similar to those we put on alcohol and tobacco), create jobs, and break the monopolies enjoyed by murderous thugs. Some might argue that such a system would lead to more people taking drugs;but the end of prohibition did not result in an epidemic of alcoholism, and the evidence from countries like Portugal suggests that a liberal drug policy would not result in a worrying increase in drug use.

In the current economic climate imaginative polices that will save money need to be more seriously considered. Let’s take a lesson from the pot growers and innovate. End the drug war, legalize prostitution, remove our nonsensical trade barriers with countries like Cuba, end the wars in the Middle East, simplify the tax code, remove the minimum wage, remove taxes for the poor, and localize community responsibilities like education and health to the states. That might save some money, but it would be political suicide. The classic problems of public choice theory strike again. 

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Matthew Feeney

Anglo-American currently working as Assistant Editor of Reason 24/7 at Reason.com. Before coming to DC I worked in London at the Institute of Economic Affairs and at the headquarters of the Liberal Democrats. I write mostly on economics, civil liberties, and foreign affairs.

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