Immigration, violence, drug policy, and world economics...it may seem odd to lump these four issues together, but I believe they all are connected.
In order to regulate drug use, US law defines what is a drug and outlines legal vs. illegal drugs and over-the-counter vs. prescription drugs.
Legal drugs happen to be those that are manufactured in first world countries—like the US and Europe. These include alcohol, cigarettes, and prescription drugs. Except for a few US pot farmers and designer drugs like methamphetamines and crack which are manufactured locally, most illegal drugs are manufactured in third world countries. These include marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. Interesting observation, huh?
If you look at the issue of legal vs. illegal drugs, the designations have nothing to do with public health or death rates. Smoking cigarettes kills more people worldwide than anything else—period—yet cigarettes are legal, freely available, and pretty much uncontrolled. Efforts by public health advocates and the Food and Drug Administration under the Clinton Administration to classify tobacco as a drug were thwarted by the Republican Congress. Although all of the drugs listed above are addictive, the nicotine in cigarettes is one of the most highly addictive substances.
Since the legal vs. illegal designation is not related to health or addiction, what is it related to? My theory is that economics and geo-politics play a role. Pharmaceutical companies and illegal drug manufacturers are in direct competition for the hearts, minds, and wallets of the addicted.
A year ago or so, National Public Radio reported increase heroin use in small towns in America-- areas that had never seen this in the past. How did this big city vice get a toe-hold in the heartland? The answer is capitalism + addiction. Heroin had become a cheap alternative for rural folks who were addicted to Oxycontin, a prescription pain-killer. Capitalistic, illegal drug dealers were undercutting the pharmaceutical companies' prices. Both heroin and Oxycontin are analgesics. Oxycontin addicts-- particularly those who had lost there health insurance-- were turning to heroin to feed their habits and alleviate chronic pain. There are multiple other examples of legal and illegal drugs competing for market share. Medical marijuana competes with prescription drugs that also help cancer patients handle pain. Recreational marijuana competes with alcohol and some prescription drugs for users who just want to mellow out and competes with tobacco for users who enjoy the act of smoking.
From a public health standpoint, what would happen if marijuana—and perhaps other currently illegal drugs—were legalized and taxed in the US? Would the death rates from drug use increase? Probably not -- if we get cigarette smoking and obesity under control at the same time. Would marijuana use increase? Maybe but usage most likely would be as price-sensitive as cigarette usage is now. Would medicinal use of marijuana increase? Probably because it would be available to patients and other uses would be discovered. Would drug violence in the US and Mexico decrease? Hopefully-- if we can also control the flow of guns back and forth across the border.
What would happen economically if marijuana were legalized for medical and recreational use and taxed, as alcohol and tobacco are now? First of all, tax revenues would increase. Drug dealers would lose a major income stream. Mexico, other 3rd world countries, and some areas of the US would gain a major cash crop. Legalization of marijuana won’t eliminate illegal immigration and drug-related violence in the US, but I predict it would have an impact. Mexicans are coming to the US for jobs because their economic system is broken. A big cash crop that has a ready market in the US and worldwide would be a boon to Mexico and many other poor countries and will make living in these countries economically viable.
OK, so, I know that marijuana legalization won’t eliminate the immigration "problem" completely in the US, but to what extent do we really want to eliminate it? Remember those aging Baby Boomers? As they-- we-- retire and eventually die, the US will need workers to replace them. We will have a labor shortage in the future without immigrants and their children.
Now that the dark days of the Bush Administration are over, I'm glad that people in the government are looking at drug policy. I'm also heartened by the efforts of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. The war on drugs has not worked-- just as Prohibition didn't work in the 1930s. Illegal drug use and drug-related violence have increased since Nixon declared the war. The drug war is a failed experiment and has been allowed to continue for too long.
Originally published on Muse Views, May 8, 2009.