Thursday, January 20, 2011

12 Angry People (Part I)

I served on jury duty this week. Not just waiting in the bull-pen, but actually on a serious criminal trial with major life consequences for the defendant. I chose the title for this blog because regardless of how many differences we worked out on the facts of the case, everyone was angry about the waste of so many young lives (this defendant, the witnesses and other involved in the crime). I'm not aware of any of them being older than 30 years of age, and several were in their early 20s.

I'm going to split my comments between the economic and the faith-centered, although the distinction may not be absolute. I've always been somewhat torn between different economic models of the economics of drug policy. I accept that the "war on drugs" has horrible unintended consequences both here and in other countries (Mexico, Columbia, Afghanistan). I am convinced that organized crime thrived in the U.S. during prohibition, and that something similar, or worse, is going on now. But, I've also had discussions with equally good economists who point out that our national memory has focused on the unintended consequences, but we've missed the fact that by driving up the effective price of alcohol, less alcohol was consumed, and that did show in national health patterns. I've spoken with other economists who are completely sympathetic to the libertarian drug legalization arguments, but argue that ONLY legalizing drugs would have its own unintended consequences. Reacting to the same data I discussed above, these economists believe that legalization would lead to more drug abuse (how could an economist think that it wouldn't if the argument is that the effective price would go down) in a system in which we have in so many ways chosen the government as the financial backstop for many of the problems that increased drug abuse would almost certainly entail.

As my assignment as a juror was on a drug trial, I had hoped it would clarify these economic arguments for me. It didn't. Here's the primary reason. Many supporters of drug legalization will argue that "the government can legalize these dangerous drugs but still regulate them for safety reasons." Well, I can assure you that that, by itself, won't work, because all of the squalor and violence that I heard about was brought about by exactly that model: "legal but controlled drugs." So, where do we go? Complete legalization and free access? Certainly the motives for robbery would drop if anyone could buy an oxycodone pill for $2 rather than $70. But, if I told you the occupations that these drug abusers were tending while high, sick, or falling asleep, much less where they were driving around town, you might not want to go out your front door. And those problems would be worse, not better, if demand expanded as the price of the drugs dropped. We would be trading fewer armed robberies for more people in daily life being, for lack of a better term, whacked out. On the other hand, a system (strict government regulation) that drives the cost for one person's habit to $4,000 per month [not to mention costs of such things as this trial, incarceration, etc.] shouldn't exactly win first prize in a high-school mock legislature contest, either. One thought I'm left with is why, if we seem destined to spend public/government funds out of our ears in either of these models, shouldn't we consider trying an alternative in which we try to cure some of these people?

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