Thursday, October 6, 2011

The trickle-up economics of pot laws

Posted By on 10.06.11 at 11:48 AM

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No one gets elected by calling for less law and order. People vote out of fear, a tendency candidates happily exploit—conservative candidates, especially, the same ones who complain that government spends too much.

Here's something I wish every voter would think about every election, and every time a new criminal law is proposed: criminal justice is expensive. It costs far more than people realize. The costs aren't clear to voters because the money goes to many different agencies.

Exhibit A is this week's story by Mick Dumke and Ben Joravsky on the price to taxpayers of our marijuana prohibition. Mick and Ben trace the weedy roots of weed enforcement costs, from the police station to the courthouse to the jail. They figure Cook County taxpayers spend $78 million "to bust and jail a bunch of black guys for reefer." They can say "black guys," because they've shown in a previous story that the ratio of black to white arrests for pot possession in Chicago is 15 to 1.

It's bad enough that money is being lavished on a law whose enforcement further criminalizes African-Americans especially. But that tax money isn't simply being wasted. It also funds a host of criminal justice jobs. It helps pay the salaries of cops, prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, court clerks, court reporters, sheriff's deputies, and probation officers. Those people aren't 15 to 1 black. It's trickle-up economics: people who generally are at least middle-class are making a living on the backs of people who generally aren't. It's one reason we're slow to get rid of criminal laws that don't help us—or that don't help those of us who need help the most.

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