A sane and rational drug policy should be based on the best estimate of the relative costs and benefits of prohibition versus legalization. Usually, a precise cost/benefit analysis is impossible, given the inability to conduct natural experiments on a society-wide level. In this case, though, there is ample evidence of the counterproductive effects of prohibition provided by an almost perfectly controlled experiment.
The so-called Noble Experiment, or National Prohibition Act of the 1920’s offers a historical case study of what happens when a highly demanded product is made illegal. Alcohol prohibition created a brand new market for criminal services in bootlegging, racketeering and, above all, violence. The same social ills exist today as a result of unnecessary drug prohibition. Californians have an opportunity to participate in another experiment this November, by allowing a legal market for marijuana to replace the current black market.
Many opponents of Proposition 19 believe that the inherent nature of the drug trade lends itself to cartelization and violent gang activity. However, history has shown that organized crime groups were never involved in the alcohol business until it was prohibited and have not been involved again since its repeal in 1933. The logic behind this is simple. Prohibition creates substantial risks of prosecution for producers who are looking to make a profit by satisfying consumer demand for the drug. As a result, only those with a criminally high tolerance for risk or a supportive criminal network will enter the trade, bringing a criminal culture into the market with them. Rather than expand the market for criminal activity, legalization of marijuana would eliminate the high risk and high profits that draw criminals into the market in the first place.
The cost of the criminal activity resulting from prohibition is staggering, in terms of both law enforcement resources and the ruined lives of the thousands of inmates incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses. The benefits associated with prohibition, ostensibly lower rates of drug use and abuse, are vague and unproven. There is little evidence that criminalization reduces substance use in adults or children. From 1920 to 1923, in the early years of alcohol prohibition, the average age at which males began drinking dropped from to 20.4 years old, down from 21.3 in 1914. For females, the average age dropped by over two years over the same period, from 27.9 to 25.8. Additionally, numerous surveys have found that teenagers report that it is easier to illegally purchase marijuana than to buy alcohol, which is legal and regulated. This is unsurprising, given that a drug dealer is not required to ask a minor for photo ID.
Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. For some, the lessons of prohibition have yet to be fully internalized. The passage of Proposition 19 would be a major step towards sanity in our state’s drug policy. Eventually, marijuana prohibition will come to be seen as equally pointless and destructive as alcohol prohibition was.