Home / General / Gary Becker Is Making Sense

Gary Becker Is Making Sense


I don’t always agree with conservertarians, but when I do, it generally involves drug decriminalization. In particular, it is indeed important to remember that merely decriminalizing possession doesn’t do much for the mass incarceration and violence caused by the War on (Some Classes of People Who Use Some) Drugs.

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  • Jamie

    Jjackass long talker decides there is a better market in supplying coke than locking up people.

    Wonder who is buying.

    Not like I mind, it is a good sign. It would just be interesting to know which weasel waved which think-tank report under his nose.

  • Murc

    I’ve always viewed decriminalization through the same lens as crack having so much harsher penalties than cocaine.

    It is true there are some people who take the decriminalization stance because they think that’s within the bounds of acceptable political discourse where legalization is not, and more likely to get traction. And, fair enough.

    But it’s also true that decriminalization has strong class and race elements involved. Decrim is overwhelmingly friend to white, middle-and-upper class, older drug users. Guys who can get a couple baggies a month from their hippie-slash-libertarian friends or have the time and wherewithal to safely run a small grow op for their private use.

    Poor people who have committed the unspeakable sin of just wanting to get a little high will have to run the risk of being nailed during the transaction or of getting hit with ‘intent to distribute’ charges, among a myriad number of other ways the drug warriors can keep going after them.

    • What Murc said. Let’s not fool ourselves: if the WSJ floats an idea, it’s going to be ruinous for people who are not rich. Making possession legal while keeping sales illegal is a neat brain-twister, but it’s a policy guaranteed to screw the majority of little-guy consumers.

      The Drug War is very lucrative. The drug warriors aren’t going to abandon it quietly.

      • Left_Wing_Fox

        I think that’s going to depend a lot on the exact bounds of the policy. If we’re decriminalizing x-amount of weed and leaving the rest of the system in place, then I agree.

        Frankly, I’m all for making drugs legal taxed and regulated for mild drugs, and controlled through safe injection sites for the hard stuff. If we’re talking harm reduction, I’d much rather see people taking meth or heroin at a place where the dosage can be controlled, the environment is safe, the needles are clean and there’s plenty of access to councillors and effective cessation programs when people are ready to quit.

        • DrDick

          This. Drug addiction is a disease, not a crime.

        • Linnaeus

          Seconded. Treating a public health issue like a crime has been a disaster.

          • catclub

            Treating a public health issue like a crime, is a crime.


      • Joe

        How is what they floated MORE “ruinous” than the current policy? It is listed as merely “a step” and the article notes that “it would not, by itself” deal with the problems with the current policy. But, there is no chance in hell that nirvana here is going to happen all at once. It will happen in installments. The Portugal model, e.g., was cited & Glenn Greenwald (once in Portuguese!) reported on the sanity of that as a first step.

      • tt

        I’m guessing you didn’t actually read the article. Was drug decriminalization in Portugal “ruinous for people who are not rich”?

        • DocAmazing

          Exactly how does US law enforcement resemble that of Portugal? For that matter, how does the US electorate resemble that of Portugal? Has Portugal ever had as large a fraction of its population in prison as the US currently does, even during its Fascist period?

          Stepwise is great, provided one of the steps involves limiting the power of the police.

          • Joe

            decriminalization “limits” the power of the police, if not as much as would be ideal

            • PSP

              At the very least, decriminalization will get rid of “Tell us who you bought it from, or you’re going to jail for x years.”

              • Murc

                I am willing to bet that at least some police forces and prosecutors are already planning to present the following rationale: that possession is evidence a sale took place, which is a crime. If the suspect doesn’t roll on the seller, he will be hit with charges for said sale, obstruction of justice, and probably conspiracy.

                • Anon21

                  Not conspiracy, given Wharton’s Rule.

                • L2P

                  Ready to? That IS the main evidence of intent to sell. Possession of more dope than a person can “reasonably” use is all the evidence you need, generally, to prove possession with intent to sell. If you can find a scale, or a bunch of cash, or a bunch of baggies, you’re done.

                  The grey area is when a suspect possesses “personal” amounts, but does other suspicious stuff. Think of Breaking Bad – all the flunkies on bikes just have a couple bindles on them at any given time.

                  That’s a LOT of sales arrests.

          • Joe

            U.S. and Portugal are different. Not seeing how this means — as a proposal — decriminalization would be “ruinous” or rather more so than the current policy. The current U.S. electorate and prison population doesn’t really seem to hurt the argument that decriminalization makes some sense, including the unlikelihood a more complete solution would pass & a middle path will at least do something to reduce prison populations.

      • Scott Lemieux

        Let’s not fool ourselves: if the WSJ floats an idea, it’s going to be ruinous for people who are not rich. Making possession legal while keeping sales illegal is a neat brain-twister, but it’s a policy guaranteed to screw the majority of little-guy consumers.

        Did you read the article? As I said, this is exactly Becker’s argument — decriminalizing possession while continuing to make distribution illegal doesn’t really solve much.

        • DocAmazing

          One moderate alternative to the war on drugs is to follow Portugal’s lead and decriminalize all drug use while maintaining the illegality of drug trafficking. Decriminalizing drugs implies that persons cannot be criminally punished when they are found to be in possession of small quantities of drugs that could be used for their own consumption.

          While Becker does go on to advocate–mildly–full decriminalization, he leads with this “smoke ’em if you got ’em” approach, whereby people obtain drugs without, y’know, buying them. I’d be more impressed if he’d let the air out of that right up front.

          • Scott Lemieux

            So, while you don’t actually disagree with anything Becker wrote, and indeed he explicitly makes the argument you accuse him of not making, the order in which he makes his argument proves that he’s part of a Wall Street Journal conspiracy to oppress people of color. Right.

            • DocAmazing

              Wow, Scott. You really have a talent for reading between the non-existent lines.

    • Anon21

      Since (as others have noted) you clearly did not read the article, allow me to excerpt one of the more relevant parts for you, in hopes that you may read it when not embedded in the fearsome bulk of the entire column:

      Though the decriminalization of drug use would have many benefits, it would not, by itself, reduce many of the costs of the war on drugs, since those involve actions against traffickers. These costs would not be greatly reduced unless selling drugs was also decriminalized. Full decriminalization on both sides of the drug market would lower drug prices, reduce the role of criminals in producing and selling drugs, improve many inner-city neighborhoods, encourage more minority students in the U.S. to finish high school, substantially lessen the drug problems of Mexico and other countries involved in supplying drugs, greatly reduce the number of state and federal prisoners and the harmful effects on drug offenders of spending years in prison, and save the financial resources of government.

      • Anon21

        Maybe this should go under DocAmazing’s reply, although Murc’s comment similarly suggests he’s not grappling with Becker’s real argument.

        • Murc

          It does suggest that, doesn’t it?

          I could have worded it better. I wasn’t disagreeing with Becker per se; I was just kind of making the point that decriminalization has race and class elements to it that shouldn’t be overlooked or marginalized. Becker touches on that, but doesn’t really go full-bore into the topic, which is fine, because his article isn’t entirely about that and digressions would have detracted from his larger point.

          I was just commenting on the subject at hand in a general way, really.

          • Scott Lemieux

            Although I still don’t really see the objection. In race and class terms, decriminalization of possession would still be a massive improvement on the status quo, since middle class people already have de facto legal immunity for possession.

            • Murc

              I was making an objection of some sort?

              News to me.

              As I said, I could have worded things better. But I don’t really think I’m explicitly objecting to anything in my initial post. So… I guess we agree?

  • Manju

    I don’t always agree with conservertarians, but when I do, it generally involves drug decriminalization.

    I don’t always agree with conservertarians, but when I do, it generally involves drugs.

    • The Dark Avenger

      Does that mean you’re a right-wing socialist, Manju?

      • Joey Maloney

        I don’t always agree with conservatarians, but when I do, I drink Dos Equis. By the barrel.

        • sharculese

          As punishment?

          • Manju

            Yeah…stay thirsty my friend.

  • Manju

    Ok, so we (RWingers) have lost the War on Women and the War on Drugs? Fuck.

    But we are winning the War on Crime, no? Law an order! Lock ’em up! Rudy!


    But wait:



    OK. But we still have the War on Rugs. We’re winning that. How about the Wart on Mugs? I don’t know what that is either, but we are winning it.

    But don’t forget the War on Terror. We won that, Libtards! All you guys have is Warren Terra. Meanwhile who 86ed OBL? Liberals? Well, lets check:


  • Anon21

    I wonder if it would be possible to work up even a rough estimate of the amount the federal government spends on this shit at a time when poor people and retirees are being told by the conservative coalition they must accept benefit cuts for the greater good.

    This is all very fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, but: take Becker’s vague estimate of “about 50%” of BOP’s population as drug offenders. (From the way he wrote it, I assume we’re talking about everyone who was convicted of a drug offense in part, even if they were also convicted of other offenses, like guns or violence.)

    217,529 prisoners in BOP. Source Half that is 108,764.

    Here’s where it gets kind of hopeless. There are estimates for the cost per prisoner, per day of BOP prisoners at various security levels, but no breakdown that I’m aware of the proportion of drug offenders at each security level. So let’s assume, for no reason but simplicity, that 20% of drug offenders end up in each of the five classifications: community corrections, minimum, low, medium, and high.

    That would yield a cost of about $7,890,681 for the drug offenders per day, or about $2.9 billion per year. Unfortunately, that’s an insignificant drop in the budget bucket, which is what I should perhaps have expected. Unless federal enforcement, prosecution, and adjudication costs for drug offenses are orders of magnitude higher than the costs of incarcerating drug offenders (maybe they are?), we’re not talking about significant potential savings here. This is also excluding costs of pretrial confinement, which are significant but probably well under $3 billion per year.

    Of course, the state spending on incarcerating drug offenders probably dwarfs that $2.9 billion, even though “only” 20% of state prisoners are locked up on drug charges.

  • L2P

    A couple things.

    Becker’s conflating a bunch of stuff. “Trafficking” generally refers to large-scale movement of drugs. Most people aren’t convicted of trafficking. Most people are convicted of sales or possession for sales (and conspiracy, etc.).

    Depending on how the decriminalization statutes were written a LOT of those arrests would probably also go away. A ton of sales and possession for sales are based on very small amounts of drugs and a lot of circumstance. For every arrest with 100 bindles of crack, you get a dozen arrests with 3-5 bindles but you also found a scale, $200 in cash in small bills, and the observation that there were a dozen door visits of less than a minute in a one-hour period.

    If you decriminalize personal possession those dozen arrests probably go away. The PDs usually settle those cases because it’s jail time either way; now it’s going to be a tough case and “personal use” is maybe a complete defense. For a lot of DAs this isn’t going to be worth the time. So decriminalization will probably affect drug sales crimes quite a bit, unless it’s drafted really narrowly.

    Which brings up another issue. You can decriminalization small sales and still criminalize “trafficking.” I don’t know why Becker thinks we need to let the cartels operate freely to let street dealers sell their bindles of crack in Watts. It’s certainly possibly to decriminalize any possession of less than 20 grams, and also decriminalize of less than xxx amount.

    Or infract them. If small sales was a traffic ticket, like jaywalking, it’s hard to see that as a huge injustice.

    Just some things to think about.

    • Anon21

      Interesting, thanks. One question I have in response: any merit to the idea that full legalization (so, trafficking is also okay) would reduce a lot of the violence associated with the drug trade?

      • Murc

        any merit to the idea that full legalization (so, trafficking is also okay) would reduce a lot of the violence associated with the drug trade?

        A lot of merit.

        The reason there’s a lot of violence associated with the drug trade is that it is illegal at all steps of the way. If you legalize the end point AND make trafficking legal, the countries that supply us with various drugs will do the same thing, and suddenly all the drug lords will either become, or more likely be replaced by, legitimate businessmen. Those guys would be equally as scummy, but far less violent.

        For that matter, the violence associated with the drug trade could drop by a lot if the producing countries decided ‘Fuck it. We’ll make all this shit legal, what happens once it passes our borders we don’t care about’ but the first world has basically collectively decided any country that tries that will have diplomatic, economic, and possibly military calamity visited upon it.

        • L2P

          Very true.

          There’s another side, though. For marijuana, for example, you can decriminalize the possession (personal or sales) of up to 5 adult plants (plus any number of immature plants) and 32 ounces of marijuana. That’s not enough for any sort of large-scale operation, but it’s enough for personal use, and a 7-11 could buy joints and stuff from a bunch of local suppliers without too much trouble. You couldn’t really wholesale it on a large scale legally.

          Would that hurt cartels? Maybe. It’s certainly an annoying world for them if the feds now focus on trafficking and not street sales, and there’s competition.

          Again, I’m just putting this out there. After dealing with medical marijuana for so long, I think that decriminalization of small sales might be the way to go. I’m not sure, but it seems to address a lot of problems.

          • L2P

            I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you decriminalize small sales, you might eliminate the market for the cartels and so get them to disappear.

            Right now with medical marijuana, we’ve essentially decriminalized possession but haven’t decriminalized the small-level sales that would support it so it’s still supporting the cartels (almost certainly.) I’m almost certain that if we decriminalized small sales, there wouldn’t be a market for them.

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