The Costs of Prohibition

 

shutterstock_177594347Continuing on today’s theme of prohibition, a common and very reasonable argument made by prohibitionists is to point to all the dangers, criminality, and immorality associated with proscribed activities and ask whether society should invite more of them. The implication is that these problems are intrinsic to the activity itself and should further tip the scales toward prohibition.

Examples abound. Consider Bill Bennett & Robert White’s point in Going to Pot that modern marijuana is more potent than ever before; dangerously so, they say. Regarding a different kind of vice, prostitution opponents have, of late, focused their attention on the dangers and exploitation women and girls face, to the point that the trade is sometimes presented as being nearly synonymous with human trafficking.

While we can stipulate that intoxicants and the selling of sex are more likely to be fraught than other industries, prohibition — or regulations equivalent to it — can have the simultaneous effect of reducing consumption (at least a little) while making what consumption remains even more dangerous than before. As Milton Friedman argued nearly 40 years ago, increasing a drug’s potency increases its portability, something highly desired in contraband. Analogously, consider both how much easier it is to smuggle whisky into a party than a full case of beer and how much more potentially dangerous the former is.

Moreover, prohibition not only puts the contraband itself outside of the law, but everything involved with it. If someone steals your legally-acquired property, you can seek justice through the legal system; if someone steals your drugs, your only options are to let it slide or seek justice yourself, neither of which end well. As such, it’s little wonder that those involved in the trade are disproportionally violent and wicked. I don’t say this to excuse drug violence — the participants are responsible for their behavior, regardless of the incentives put before them — though it offers a partial explanation of it.

Similarly, prohibiting prostitution has almost certainly made it more dangerous by denying access to safeguards available in other industries. Services like Uber and Lyft, for example, not only connect amateur taxi drivers and their clients, but also provide a great deal of protection, as the entire transaction — as well as the identities of the participants — is logged and monitored from start to finish. As Elizabeth Nolan Brown reports in Reason, there’s a strong argument to be made that a similar service for prostitutes would provide a similar benefit, allowing women to screen their johns in advance and document the encounter’s location and participants should something go wrong. That would make it much more difficult for abusers and murderers to take advantage of the women involved, and consequentially reduce the need for thuggish pimps.

None of this makes for a complete case against prohibition for either marijuana or prostitution; it’s perfectly possible that the increased dangers caused by their criminalization are outweighed by the benefits in reduced consumption. It does, however, make the prohibitionist arguments more difficult.

There are 30 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @PleatedPantsForever

    The problem is we are governed by lawyers who think if you pass a law something will magically change. So, they think that if you ban something it will somehow just disappear. When, in reality, you often just create a new class of “criminals.” Being married to a law professor, I posted on how lawyers mess up the legislature a couple weeks ago……for those who feel bad for Troy S as he tries to host law talk please think of those of us who live the nightmare of talking to law professors every day

    • #1
  2. DocJay Inactive
    DocJay
    @DocJay

    We have brothels down the road here in Reno and we are headed toward pot legalization.  Life is far easier with both.   Whatever people think about either of these issues,  it will all be legal eventually.

    • #2
  3. Zoon Politikon Inactive
    Zoon Politikon
    @KristianStout

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: While we can stipulate that intoxicants and the selling of sex are more likely to be fraught than other industries, prohibition — or regulations equivalent to it — can have the simultaneous effect of reducing consumption (at least a little) while making what consumption remains even more dangerous than before.

    Tom, This is the core of what I was getting to in my post earlier.  The core of the prohibitionist argument appears to be a willingness to shut one’s eyes and wish away the evils of the world.  Even granting that drugs and prostitution are always morally wrong, it doesn’t follow that the best approach to dealing with them is to throw those who indulge into prison.  Further, the unintended consequences of creating a prohibition could very well (and in my opinion, usually do) lead to much greater social harms than the prohibited activity itself ever could have done.

    • #3
  4. user_836033 Member
    user_836033
    @WBob

    Ok, but calling it “prohibition” is intentionally comparing it to the prohibition of alcohol. This is a disingenuous comparison because alcohol was already used and accepted in society for very long time. Advocating the continued illegality of marijuana is not equivalent to advocating the prohibition of alcohol. The arguments against attempting the prohibition of alcohol do not fit neatly into the marijuana issue.

    • #4
  5. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    I’m not going to elaborate at length, but obviously the big downside to legalization is allowing legal market forces to go to work on promoting a product. Advertising, product research, product placement etc etc all become open options, and our overwhelming experience with the market suggests that those things can be quite effective at increasing consumption. Maybe you restrict them a bit with specially-tailored laws, but now you’re sticking your fingers in a different kind of dike.

    • #5
  6. Fricosis Guy Listener
    Fricosis Guy
    @FricosisGuy

    I heard Bill Bennett go through his schtick on Bill Kristol’s pod.

    In particular, I shook my head at his argument re: the dangers of marijuana’s increased THC potency. It reminded me of the rationalizations of alcoholics who believed that switching to beer would fix things.

    • #6
  7. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Rachel Lu:I’m not going to elaborate at length, but obviously the big downside to legalization is allowing legal market forces to go to work on promoting a product. Advertising, product research, product placement etc etc all become open options, and our overwhelming experience with the market suggests that those things can be quite effective at increasing consumption. Maybe you restrict them a bit with specially-tailored laws, but now you’re sticking your fingers in a different kind of dike.

    That’s a very fair rejoinder. I would not have any object to drugs being subject to similar advertising restrictions as booze and tobacco, especially regarding advertising to minors.

    • #7
  8. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Bob W:Ok, but calling it “prohibition” is intentionally comparing it to the prohibition of alcohol. This is a disingenuous comparison because alcohol was already used and accepted in society for very long time.

    It seems like an apt word — I mean, it seems the right noun for a set of laws that prohibit something. What would you suggest in its stead?

    • #8
  9. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    Bob W:Ok, but calling it “prohibition” is intentionally comparing it to the prohibition of alcohol. This is a disingenuous comparison because alcohol was already used and accepted in society for very long time.

    Marijuana was also used and accepted for a very long time, just not by the “right sort” of people.  The comparison to alcohol prohibition is correct: both even happened in the same time-period, and inspired by the same sort of people.

    • #9
  10. user_88846 Member
    user_88846
    @MikeHubbard

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:Analogously, consider both how much easier it is to smuggle whisky into a party than a full case of beer and how much more potentially dangerous the latter is.

    I think you mean “the former,” which would refer to whisky being more dangerous than beer.

    Similarly, prohibiting prostitution has almost certainly made it more dangerous by denying access to safeguards available in other industries. Services like Uber and Lyft, for example, not only connect amateur taxi drivers and their clients, but also provide a great deal of protection, as the entire transaction — as well as the identities of the participants — is logged and monitored from start to finish. As Elizabeth Nolan Brown reports in Reason, there’s a strong argument to be made that a similar service for prostitutes would provide a similar benefit, allowing women to screen their johns in advance and document the encounter’s location and participants should something go wrong. That would make it much more difficult for abusers and murderers to take advantage of the women involved, and consequentially reduce the need for thuggish pimps.

    Selling your body on the street is never going to be wholly safe and will always be a menage a trois with death.  Yes, there are high class woman who are smart and cater to the hyperactive libidos of rich, well-behaved men.  These women have always existed, always will—but they aren’t the problem.

    The problem is that most mentally healthy women have zero desire to have sex with a strange man who’s so lame he has to pay for sex.  Prostitutes are disproportionately mentally ill or addicted to something if not both.  Further, while their clientele is mostly sad sack men who threaten nobody, a significant chunk of their clients have evil written all over them.  The bad johns will find ways to evade any screening process.

    The best we can do with prostitution is minimize it.  So long as it’s criminal, a significant number of women will stick with lame jobs rather than go into a life of crime.  These marginal cases will be much more likely to put themselves in danger should prostitution be legalized.  (If you’d like more sad details of the lives of whores and pimps, try Connie Fletcher’s What Cops Know.)

    None of this makes for a complete case against prohibition for either marijuana or prostitution; it’s perfectly possible that the increased dangers caused by their criminalization are outweighed by the benefits in reduced consumption. It does, however, make the prohibitionist arguments more difficult.

    Not all liberties are created equal.  Liberty depends on rational behavior, and drugs make us irrational.  Right now, there are plenty of legitimate reasons for me to be able to refuse a random drug test.   That freedom will go out the window should drugs be legalized.  The freedom to take drugs is in conflict with the freedom to avoid government surveillance of our literal blood.  The nice thing about alcohol is that it exits the body relatively quickly: you can be drunk tonight and sober tomorrow morning.  Many drugs take longer to leave the body.  In some cases, like fat soluble LSD, the drug can cause flashbacks years later.

    Legalizing drugs strikes me as a formidable rationale to increase the already bloated surveillance state.  I’m all for reforming how we treat nonviolent drug users—rehab and therapy should be used long before prison—but legalization strikes me as a bad idea.  I’m watching what happens in Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and DC to see if things will turn out as well as drug legalization proponents predict, or as badly as I fear.

    • #10
  11. user_836033 Member
    user_836033
    @WBob

    Marijuana may have been legal at some point in the past but that doesn’t mean that it was widely accepted in society. Just look at the aftermath of alcohol prohibition. It was repealed, unlike marijuana.

    And right now marijuana has been illegal for generations. Voting to keep it illegal is not equivalent to outlawing something that is legal now and widely used.

    I’ve always thought the legalization of marijuana in Colorado was strange. Everything else in society is going the other way. Such as the stigmatization of smoking and The emphasis on healthy living. For example, the only medical question that can be asked under Obamacare is whether you smoke. There is no scientific or medical justification for that; it’s totally a reflection of the overriding political animus against smoking.

    What good was accomplished by legalizing it? It’s as if the electorate thought it was being asked to comment on a theoretical libertarian proposition without any regard to other issues and consequences. Now they’re seeing the practical problems and consequences that result after patting themselves on the back for being good libertarians.

    • #11
  12. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    Bob W: Everything else in society is going the other way.

    So your argument against liberalizing marijuana prohibition is that we’re making everything else illegal, let’s be consistent?

    • #12
  13. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @MattBalzer

    Rachel Lu:I’m not going to elaborate at length, but obviously the big downside to legalization is allowing legal market forces to go to work on promoting a product. Advertising, product research, product placement etc etc all become open options, and our overwhelming experience with the market suggests that those things can be quite effective at increasing consumption. Maybe you restrict them a bit with specially-tailored laws, but now you’re sticking your fingers in a different kind of dike.

    I’ll allow that legal market forces can do a lot more to promote a product than illegal ones, but there’s a certain amount of promotion that comes from a product’s illegality as well, not to mention people talking about it.

    If nothing else, I would find it amusing to have large corporations producing tens of thousands of acres worth of marijuana, just because of the cognitive dissonance it would produce in certain demographics.

    • #13
  14. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Mike Hubbard:

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:Analogously, consider both how much easier it is to smuggle whisky into a party than a full case of beer and how much more potentially dangerous the latter is.

    I think you mean “the former,” which would refer to whisky being more dangerous than beer.

    Fixed!

    Mike Hubbard:

    Selling your body on the street is never going to be wholly safe and will always be a menage a trois with death. Yes, there are high class woman who are smart and cater to the hyperactive libidos of rich, well-behaved men. These women have always existed, always will—but they aren’t the problem.

    The problem is that most mentally healthy women have zero desire to have sex with a strange man who’s so lame he has to pay for sex. Prostitutes are disproportionately mentally ill or addicted to something if not both. Further, while their clientele is mostly sad sack men who threaten nobody, a significant chunk of their clients have evil written all over them. The bad johns will find ways to evade any screening process.

    Agreed on both points (for a hilarious, CoC-pushing take on attitudes about prostitution that are as hopelessly naive as others are alarmist, I submit this Mitchell & Webb sketch).

    While I’d submit that prohibition itself is likely to scare away many non-evil johns and non-broken prostitutes, I agree the business is inherently dangerous.

    • #14
  15. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Mike Hubbard:

    Legalizing drugs strikes me as a formidable rationale to increase the already bloated surveillance state. I’m all for reforming how we treat nonviolent drug users—rehab and therapy should be used long before prison—but legalization strikes me as a bad idea. I’m watching what happens in Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and DC to see if things will turn out as well as drug legalization proponents predict, or as badly as I fear.

    Interesting.

    • #15
  16. user_157053 Member
    user_157053
    @DavidKnights

    I’ve never taken an illegal drug in my life.  If marijuana were legal tomorrow, I would have no interest in trying it.  I think it is pretty clear that even casual marijuana use makes you a stupider, less motivated individual.

    All that said, I would vote for it to be legal.  People should have the right, within wide boundaries, to make decisions about themselves and their well-being.   This is even true if the decisions they make are stupid ones.  One of the great sins of the left is that they, in an attempt to “protect” people from making “bad” or “wrong” choices, want to pass laws that little by little take away citizen’s liberty.   The “we know best” paternalism is slowly enslaving the citizens of the country.  Like boiling a frog, it has happened bit by bit, small piece by small piece, until we’ve gotten to where we are today.

    • #16
  17. user_157053 Member
    user_157053
    @DavidKnights

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Mike Hubbard:

    Legalizing drugs strikes me as a formidable rationale to increase the already bloated surveillance state. I’m all for reforming how we treat nonviolent drug users—rehab and therapy should be used long before prison—but legalization strikes me as a bad idea. I’m watching what happens in Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and DC to see if things will turn out as well as drug legalization proponents predict, or as badly as I fear.

    Interesting.

    Let states experiment and make different choices and see the results.  Wow, if only someone had thought of that 200+ years ago.

    • #17
  18. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @Welshman21

    This is a great topic for the all of the conservative spectrum of thought. Although I lean libertarian, I would take a Burkean view at least on Pot legalization. Current strains of marijuana are much more debilitating than what we used in college 30 years ago. I don’t see how anyone is able exercise their responsibilities to the community if they are consistent users. Prohibition, and this includes alcohol, tends to decrease use. I understand historic prohibition also bankrolled the mafia, and now the drug cartels. Still does the nation really yearn or benefit from more drug abuse? Possibly what we are looking for to is more of a de-criminalization scheme.

    • #18
  19. user_51254 Member
    user_51254
    @BereketKelile

    Welshman21:Current strains of marijuana are much more debilitating than what we used in college 30 years ago.

    I’m not sure what the skepticism is based on but you’re absolutely correct. In doing some survey research on this subject recently I’ve learned a lot about the topic. Your hippie-era weed had about 1-5% THC and today it has 14% on average, some as high as 30%. That’s to say nothing of the 90% THC in hash oil, which is extracted from the plant in a very dangerous process involving butane fuel. Colorado now has to deal with exploding homes reminiscent of meth labs.

    The other related point is that this new addictive product will be sold in poor, minority neighborhoods, as is the case with cigarettes and liquor. I think the image of responsible libertarians smoking a joint on their patio is a bit misleading.

    • #19
  20. user_51254 Member
    user_51254
    @BereketKelile

    One other thing I forgot to mention is that the smell of marijuana will be quite a nuisance. You won’t be able to get away from it in public. Many cities in California have already banned cultivation in residential areas to deal with the problem.

    • #20
  21. Ricochet Moderator
    Ricochet
    @DougWatt

    There might be a crime problem on the horizon with legalized marijuana. Pot stores are a cash and carry business. No checks, no debit cards, and no credit cards. Large amounts of cash will mean armed robberies, organized crime extorting protection money and/or forcing their way in to a pot shop as a silent partner to skim and launder money from other criminal enterprises.

    • #21
  22. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Doug Watt:There might be a crime problem on the horizon with legalized marijuana. Pot stores are a cash and carry business. No checks, no debit cards, and no credit cards. Large amounts of cash will mean armed robberies, organized crime extorting protection money and/or forcing their way in to a pot shop as a silent partner to skim and launder money from other criminal enterprises.

    If that’s a legal requirement, wouldn’t removing it make sense?

    • #22
  23. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Doug Watt:There might be a crime problem on the horizon with legalized marijuana. Pot stores are a cash and carry business.

    Wouldn’t that change if it was legal?  It’s the illegality that keeps it cash and carry.

    • #23
  24. Ricochet Moderator
    Ricochet
    @DougWatt

    Zafar:

    Doug Watt:There might be a crime problem on the horizon with legalized marijuana. Pot stores are a cash and carry business.

    Wouldn’t that change if it was legal? It’s the illegality that keeps it cash and carry.

    Legal pot shops in Colorado are already cash only. Chronic users of marijuana are hardly reliable as far as whether they are presenting their own debit cards or credit cards for purchases. It is the pot shop owners that are demanding cash only purchases.

    • #24
  25. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Doug Watt:

    Zafar:

    Doug Watt:There might be a crime problem on the horizon with legalized marijuana. Pot stores are a cash and carry business.

    Wouldn’t that change if it was legal? It’s the illegality that keeps it cash and carry.

    Legal pot shops in Colorado are already cash only.

    Sounds like a tax dodge to me.

    • #25
  26. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Doug Watt:There might be a crime problem on the horizon with legalized marijuana. Pot stores are a cash and carry business. No checks, no debit cards, and no credit cards. Large amounts of cash will mean armed robberies, organized crime extorting protection money and/or forcing their way in to a pot shop as a silent partner to skim and launder money from other criminal enterprises.

    If that’s a legal requirement, wouldn’t removing it make sense?

    The lack of banking for pot businesses has been covered pretty well by the Freakonomics podcasts.  The issue is that federal law ties the hands of the banks, they can’t legally do business with the pot dealers as federal law conflicts with state laws.

    • #26
  27. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Doug Watt:

    Zafar:

    Doug Watt:There might be a crime problem on the horizon with legalized marijuana. Pot stores are a cash and carry business.

    Wouldn’t that change if it was legal? It’s the illegality that keeps it cash and carry.

    Legal pot shops in Colorado are already cash only. Chronic users of marijuana are hardly reliable as far as whether they are presenting their own debit cards or credit cards for purchases. It is the pot shop owners that are demanding cash only purchases.

    To a point this is true, but the banks (due to federal regs) are also preventing the pot shops from opening accounts to store that cash.

    • #27
  28. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Regarding screening of johns in prostitution – this is actually already done among the escort services, which are an admittedly upscale industry in the first place.  There is already a semi-formal network for client referrals (again, thank Freakonomics for doing this research), and there are other related services in place to handle the money, accounting, security, etc.

    High end prostitution is not, of course, what people worry about when talking legalization – it is the low class street walking and the business fronts like massage parlors that give people pause, as these have all sorts of problems.  This area is currently rife with sex trafficking, and there is sadly an internet economy for the pedophiles too.

    • #28
  29. user_199279 Coolidge
    user_199279
    @ChrisCampion

    Mike Hubbard:

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:Analogously, consider both how much easier it is to smuggle whisky into a party than a full case of beer and how much more potentially dangerous the latter is.

    I think you mean “the former,” which would refer to whisky being more dangerous than beer.

    Similarly, prohibiting prostitution has almost certainly made it more dangerous by denying access to safeguards available in other industries. Services like Uber and Lyft, for example, not only connect amateur taxi drivers and their clients, but also provide a great deal of protection, as the entire transaction — as well as the identities of the participants — is logged and monitored from start to finish. As Elizabeth Nolan Brown reports in Reason, there’s a strong argument to be made that a similar service for prostitutes would provide a similar benefit, allowing women to screen their johns in advance and document the encounter’s location and participants should something go wrong. That would make it much more difficult for abusers and murderers to take advantage of the women involved, and consequentially reduce the need for thuggish pimps.

    Selling your body on the street is never going to be wholly safe and will always be a menage a trois with death. Yes, there are high class woman who are smart and cater to the hyperactive libidos of rich, well-behaved men. These women have always existed, always will—but they aren’t the problem.

    The problem is that most mentally healthy women have zero desire to have sex with a strange man who’s so lame he has to pay for sex. Prostitutes are disproportionately mentally ill or addicted to something if not both. Further, while their clientele is mostly sad sack men who threaten nobody, a significant chunk of their clients have evil written all over them. The bad johns will find ways to evade any screening process.

    The best we can do with prostitution is minimize it. So long as it’s criminal, a significant number of women will stick with lame jobs rather than go into a life of crime. These marginal cases will be much more likely to put themselves in danger should prostitution be legalized. (If you’d like more sad details of the lives of whores and pimps, try Connie Fletcher’s What Cops Know.)

    You’re really taking the shine of my burgeoning pimp career here, chief.  Thanks for shattering my dreams.

    • #29
  30. user_199279 Coolidge
    user_199279
    @ChrisCampion

    Matt Balzer:

    Rachel Lu:I’m not going to elaborate at length, but obviously the big downside to legalization is allowing legal market forces to go to work on promoting a product. Advertising, product research, product placement etc etc all become open options, and our overwhelming experience with the market suggests that those things can be quite effective at increasing consumption. Maybe you restrict them a bit with specially-tailored laws, but now you’re sticking your fingers in a different kind of dike.

    I’ll allow that legal market forces can do a lot more to promote a product than illegal ones, but there’s a certain amount of promotion that comes from a product’s illegality as well, not to mention people talking about it.

    If nothing else, I would find it amusing to have large corporations producing tens of thousands of acres worth of marijuana, just because of the cognitive dissonance it would produce in certain demographics.

    I like that idea.  A group of couch-dwelling stoners who are totally enthralled by their corporate masters.

    • #30

Comments are closed because this post is more than six months old. Please write a new post if you would like to continue this conversation.