Sunday, May 17, 2009

Legalize (and Tax) Vice

Several months ago, shortly after the Michael Phelps bong-photo imbroglio, I posted here to argue that soft drugs should be legalized because current drug laws are: (1) bad policy; and (2) unconstitutional.

Focusing on the first point, we discussed that state and federal laws criminalizing the use and possession of marijuana are atrocious policy for at least three reasons: (a) the massive costs imposed on lives and public treasuries; (b) low efficacy - i.e, the laws do little to dissuade those who desire to light up from doing so; the (c) crime problems caused by making marijuana a black market commodity.

So, we continued, wouldn't it be better in policy terms for the government to decriminalize marijuana and regulate much like it regulates alcohol and tobacco? This is what many policymakers - conservative and liberal alike - believe, for a number of reasons: (1) it would reduce crime; and (2) it would be a great moneymaker for government (through taxes on sales, etc.).

In an OpEd entitled "Paying With Our Sins" in today's New York Times, Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of, addresses this last point in making the policy case for legalizing not only marijuana, but also other vices like gambling and prostitution. (The constitutional case I mentioned in my prior posting holds for these vices as well.)

Gillespie explains: "All of these vices, involving billions of dollars and consenting adults, already take place. They just take place beyond the taxman’s reach....

"More taxed vices would certainly lead to significant new revenue streams at every level. That’s one of the reasons 52 percent of voters in a recent Zogby poll said they support legalizing, taxing and regulating the growth and sale of marijuana. Similar cases could be made for prostitution and all forms of gambling.

"In terms of economic stimulation and growth, legalization would end black markets that generate huge amounts of what economists call “deadweight losses,” or activity that doesn’t contribute to increased productivity. Rather than spending precious time and resources avoiding the law (or, same thing, paying the law off), producers and consumers could more easily get on with business and the huge benefits of working and playing in plain sight.

"Consider prostitution. No reliable estimates exist on the number of prostitutes in the United States or aggregate demand for their services. However, Nevada, one of the two states that currently allows paid sex acts, is considering a tax of $5 for each transaction. State Senator Bob Coffin argues further that imposing state taxes on existing brothels could raise $2 million a year (at present, brothels are allowed only in rural counties, which get all the tax revenue), and legalizing prostitution in cities like Las Vegas could swell state coffers by $200 million annually.

"A conservative extrapolation from Nevada to the rest of the country would easily mean billions of dollars annually in new tax revenues. ...

"Every state except Hawaii and Utah already permits various types of gambling, from state lotteries to racetracks to casinos. In 2007, such activity generated more than $92 billion in receipts, much of which was earmarked for the elderly and education. Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, has introduced legislation to repeal the federal ban on online gambling; and a 2008 study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers estimates that legalizing cyberspace betting alone could yield as much as $5 billion a year in new tax revenues. Add to that expanded opportunities for less exotic forms of wagering at, say, the local watering hole and the tax figure would be vastly larger.

"Based on estimates from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Americans spend at least $64 billion a year on illegal drugs. And according to a 2006 study by the former president of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Jon Gettman, marijuana is already the top cash crop in a dozen states and among the top five crops in 39 states, with a total annual value of $36 billion.

"A 2005 cost-benefit analysis of marijuana prohibition by Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard economist, calculated that ending marijuana prohibition would save $7.7 billion in direct state and federal law enforcement costs while generating more than $6 billion a year if it were taxed at the same rate as alcohol and tobacco. The drug czar’s office says that a gram of pure cocaine costs between $100 and $150; a gram of heroin almost $400; and a bulk gram of marijuana between $15 and $20. Those transactions are now occurring off the books of business and government alike.

"As the history of alcohol prohibition underscores, there are also many non-economic reasons to favor legalization of vices: Prohibition rarely achieves its desired goals and instead increases violence (when was the last time a tobacco kingpin was killed in a deal gone wrong?) and destructive behavior (it’s hard enough to get help if you’re a substance abuser and that much harder if you’re a criminal too). And by policing vice, law enforcement is too often distracted at best or corrupted at worst, as familiar headlines about cops pocketing bribes and seized drugs attest. There’s a lot to be said for treating consenting adults like, well, adults.

"But there is an economic argument as well, one that Franklin Roosevelt understood when he promised to end Prohibition during the 1932 presidential campaign. “Our tax burden would not be so heavy nor the forms that it takes so objectionable,” thundered Roosevelt, “if some reasonable proportion of the unaccountable millions now paid to those whose business had been reared upon this stupendous blunder could be made available for the expense of government.”

"Roosevelt could also have talked about how legitimate fortunes can be made out of goods and services associated with vice. Part of his family fortune came from the opium trade, after all, and he and other leaders during the Depression oversaw a generally orderly re-legalization of the nation’s breweries and distilleries. ...

"Legalizing vice will not balance government deficits by itself — that will largely depend on spending cuts, which seem beyond the reach of all politicians. But in a time when every penny counts and the economy needs stimulation, allowing prostitution, gambling and drugs could give us all a real lift."