Friday, September 21, 2007

Marijuana and your wallet

I don't smoke or use marijuana myself, but I favor legalizing the drug, if for no other reason than its unique medicinal benefits. But economics may be a good reason too.

The current issue of Foreign Policy magazine carries an article by Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of Drug Policy Alliance, arguing for legalizing marijuana and other illicit drugs because the "war on drugs" is a losing battle, both in terms of users and dollars.

According to Nadelmann, governments around the world dole out "probably at least $100 billion a year" in their failed policies to combat illicit drug use. The United States accounts for nearly half of the expenditure.

This is contrasted with the value of the global illegal drug market, which is estimated to be $400 billion, or approximately four times the amount governments are spending. Considering the ready availability of illegal drugs (ads like this and this regularly appear on craigslist) and the number of addicts, it's pretty clear the illegal drug industry is winning this battle hands down. This means the $100 billion outlaid by governments amounts to nothing more than a colossal waste that does nothing to prohibit drug use.

What Nadelmann doesn't mention is the failed "drug war" may also be preventing people from obtaining the medical benefits of marijuana. The drug's benefits include relieving pain that other medications fail to treat, reducing nausea in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, and helping to resolve symptoms of the eye disease glaucoma.

The Institute of Medicine came to a similar conclusion in its 288 page report on marijuana. But the IoM also noted that anti-drug policies may prevent the development of useful medical therapies derived from marijuana: "There is no guarantee that the fruits of scientific research will be made available to the public for medical use. Cannabinoid-based drugs will only become available if public investment in cannabinoid drug research is sustained and if there is enough incentive for private enterprise to develop and market such drugs."

Sadly, the anti-drug environment is unlikely to change anytime soon. The Supreme Court's 2005 ruling against medical marijuana nearly ensures that. The court in its decision urged Congress to draft legislation making medical marijuana legal, but the stagnancy that prevails above all else on Capitol HIll means little will be done.

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