An interesting phenomenon took place over the past two weeks, as our new president was pressed on the question of legalizing marijuana.
To his credit, his administration has reversed the policy of pursuing local pot clubs because they are violating federal law. To his discredit, he indicated that he did not favor legalizing drugs, as he did not expect it would assist the economy.
Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. Keeping drugs illegal has been the single most effective policy in keeping inner cities poor and ensuring that ethnic minorities in America fail to rise to their full potential.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more obvious than in Oakland, where "cash crops" such as pot, meth, crack and heroin make up a significant portion of the local economy.
My understanding is that those who support keeping drugs illegal fear that legalizing them might cause a catastrophe, as millions of Americans who never touched drugs before start using them and become unproductive.
There's a simple solution to this fear -- change the law incrementally. That approach is exactly the one our president inscrutably rejected last week. One can only presume he did so because he knows that solution doesn't poll well.
In my opinion, prohibition has several effects, all of which are negative.
First, it spreads policing manpower too thinly, forcing them to arrest people for owning or consuming certain substances. Targeting these victimless crimes prevents the cops from enforcing laws which have a greater impact on the public at large -- those against burglary and murder, for example. It is well known that Oakland's police don't even really investigate burglary cases. Our "war on drugs" is a major reason.
Second, it discourages addicts from seeking treatment, and it decreases the amount of money allocated for treatment by funneling that money to police and prisons instead. Obviously, if someone knows he can be arrested for what he is doing, he is far less likely to seek treatment.
Third, it does little or nothing to decrease drug use. My evidence here is empirical. Drugs are trivial to obtain in the East Bay, despite heavy enforcement.
Finally, and most importantly, it ensures a large steady stream of money toward the least desirable types of people in society, including the drug cartels in northern Mexico which are carrying on a war against Mexican authorities at this very moment. Closer to home, most of the slayings in Oakland each year are drug related, and it is well documented that the profitability of drug dealing is what draws most young black men away from honest lifestyles and toward a life of imprisonment and violence.
Legalizing drugs would eliminate the money going to these gangsters. Ever noticed how you don't hear much any more from the gangs which ran alcohol during prohibition in the 1930s? The same thing would happen to our current crop of inner-city gangs.
Furthermore, drugs could be taxed, with that money applied toward treatment and education programs. I think it's quite likely that this diversion of resources could decrease the number of drug users below current levels.
But most importantly, doing so would change the face of poverty in America, providing people with a real incentive toward honest lifestyles rather than drug dealing and violence.