Municipalize Drug Law

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia isn’t a supporter of legalizing drugs. But he does believe that passing federal laws against them has done harm to the U.S. government. “It was a great mistake to put routine drug offenses into the federal courts,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday. … Chief Justice William Rehnquist complained as far back as 1989 that the war on drugs was overwhelming the federal judiciary. (more; HT John Fast)

There’s no way the US will legalize drugs anytime soon, but if drug laws were up to cities or counties, a few places would legalize them, and then everyone else could see if that works out ok. And then maybe more places would legalize. Those of you who saw The Wire may recall that its successful experiment in local drug legalization was shut down by threats from feds.

Back in ’09 I suggested a similar solution on medicine. There’s no way we’ll substantially privatize medicine anytime soon, but if cities were in charge then places that let spending get out of control would decline relative to others that controlled costs more effectively. Losers would learn from winners, to all our benefit.

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  • r

    Competition in laws would probably work even at the nation-state level if not for closed borders. Even then it works to a degree, e.g. the existence of tax havens.

    • People find it easier to dismiss examples that are further away. Having the county next door do ok with some policy would be a lot more persuasive.

  • justin

    Do you worry about drug tourism if it were legalized in a small area? It seems to me that legalization would be far more effective on a national level because if a small area were to legalize, druggies could flock to there which would make other areas more hesitant to legalize as well.

  • “Back in ’09 I suggested a similar solution on medicine. There’s no way we’ll substantially privatize medicine anytime soon, but if cities were in charge then places that let spending get out of control would decline relative to others that controlled costs more effectively. Losers would learn from winners, to all our benefit.”

    This is an intuition mismatch for me. My understanding (gleaned from Krugman/Yglesias types) is that federal spending is more efficient than private sector spending? Also, you seem to be talking about spending here without an eye to outcomes (only looking at cost, not cost/benefit). This post feels like a departure to me from some of your posts in the past on health economics (pointing out the large amount of wasteful private spending on healthcare).

    • Robert Koslover

      I recommend choosing Hansonomics over Krugmanomics at any available opportunity.

      • Koslover, why? If anything, Prof. Hanson’s closer to my interests, but where the two intercept Prof. Krugman seems to me to generally be the better and better faith thinker.

    • No one to the right of Krugman thinks he’s a good-faith thinker. He’s consistently claimed that Republicans are evil and the only reason people vote for them is raaaacism.

      • I’m probably more orthogonal than to the right of Krugman (I’m not progressive) but relative to conservatives I think he’s a good faith thinker, and when it comes to public economists he seems relatively good faith.

        Prof. Mankiw and Cowen, in contrast, seem to me to be worse faith in clunkily obvious ways that Prof. DeLong and Krugman seem to delight in pointing out.

        When it comes to describing the world and the potential impact of policy Krugman seems among the best faith of his class to me, even if its a shittier pool than we could easily imagine.

  • Fnord

    You may notice that RIGHT NOW an experiment in drug law liberalization (California medical cannabis) is being shut down by threats from the feds. It’s not full on legalization, and it’s not on the municipal level, but it’s still jurisdictional competition being shot down. The federal authority to do that, of course, was affirmed in Gonzales v. Raich, where Scalia concurred with the majority (unlike Rehnquist).

  • Justin, yes the possibilities of attracting addicts might deter some places, but at least some places would legalize. At the national level there’s almost no chance for now.

    Hopefully, federal spending is not obviously more efficient that municipal spending. Since outcomes vary little with spending, I focus on spending.

    • “Hopefully, federal spending is not obviously more efficient that municipal spending. Since outcomes vary little with spending, I focus on spending.”

      In my supremely non-expert understanding, the monstrous share of spending is in the private sector, and federalizing the bulk of it would massively reduce healthcare spending. I’m not against municipalizing vs. federalizing -but it seems to me to weirdly avoid high private healthcare spending. Am I wrong that the empirical evidence indicates socializing healthcare is where the low hanging fruit is regarding reducing the health sector’s share of our economic activity?

      • Municipalize med is socialized, and does avoid private spending. In the US just socializing would not remotely be enough to reduce spending.

      • In the US just socializing would not remotely be enough to reduce spending.

        That seems to me to go against the bulk of smart thought on this topic, which claims that federal socializing alone would massively reduce spending because the federal govt. would bargain down costs and cut out private health insurance company overhead. That isn’t to say that muncipalizing wouldn’t be superior to federalizing where medicine is socialized either way (I’d like to see good faith debate on what’s optimal), but the low hanging fruit seems to me to be in the direction of federal socializing.

      • In my supremely non-expert understanding, the monstrous share of spending is in the private sector,


        This isn’t even hard to check, so there’s no excuse for being wrong about this. More than 50% of healthcare spending in the US is done by governments through S-Chip, Medicare, Medicaid, Veteran’s hospitals, Indian Health Care authority, Title X reproductive coverage, etc. US government spending per capita is higher than average total health care spending in most countries. The refusal of the government to finally implement the doc fix as well as the general protection of the medical cartel is strong evidence that the government has no real interest in lowering spending.

      • That is a strange way of calculating “health care spending”. It includes R&D, health care for government employees, exemptions for employer sponsored coverage, and sales tax exemptions as “health care spending”.

        It seems kind of disingenuous to me, to lump together NIH R&D, sales tax and tax exemptions for employers and then say the government does a bad job at negotiating with providers.

        If taxes not collected count as government “spending”, then right now the largest item of government “spending” is the gigantic government welfare “payments” to the wealthy because they are not taxed at higher rates.

        Increase the marginal rate on the wealthy back to traditional levels (70% when Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Regan were president), then we would be able to get back to traditional government revenues, traditional deficits, and traditional growth rates.

        Since the fraction of the population uninsured is only ~17%, if the health insurance payments of the 83% were taxed at 21%, there would be enough revenue to cover insuring the 17% without insurance. Since the government is already paying for this health care by subsidizing those with private coverage by not taxing them, there is no increase in government health care expenditures.

        Bingo, that is the way to give everyone health care without increasing government spending. Just redefine government “spending” to include taxes not collected.

      • Fawful,
        Sigh, my more detailed post got lost in the vortex of “slow down, you’re posting too quickly”.

        Daedelus2 answers you well enough with tax expenditure yadda yadda.

  • Seem

    I’m sure the places willing to try legalization would have very different characteristics from your typical town or city. No matter how successful the policy is, others cities could easily deny it has lessons for them.

  • cournot

    Why should people who oppose drug legalization accept municipalization for drugs when their preferred policies are banned? The US has moved away from states’ rights in the last couple of hundred years and everything from regulation to employment laws to health policy have layers of constraints that are explicitly designed to limit regional diversity.

    To focus only on single issues like drugs is to force drug opponents to engage in one sided disarmament. One should readily say, we will support diversity when diversity is permitted on major issues that the Left elite supports and would not countenance relaxing for most of the population.

  • Douglas Knight

    If you don’t like fawful’s statistic, find a better statistic. Discarding tax incentives and R&D decreases the government share of heath spending to 45%, as is easily deduced from the paper fawful cites, or, say [wikipedia]( HA’s claim about the “monstrous share” is just wrong. US government spending on healthcare is not greater than total heathcare spending in most rich countries, or even government spending, but it is pretty close.

    daedalus2u, the nominal top rates of 90% before JFK and 70% before Reagan were meaningless. When they cut the rates, they had no significant effect on revenue. We are still at traditional rates of government revenue.

  • Mark M

    Recreational and medicinal drug legislation are two different beasts. Recreational drug legislation at the Federal level should be limited to international import and trade between states. This is a very straight-forward application of the 10th amendment. I’m not sure whether this has been tested in California, where growing and using medicinal marijuana is explicitly allowed by state law.

    Medicinal drug legislation should remain at the federal level. Complying with the federal and all the local legislation is already a burden for pharma companies. Removing federal legislation means that each state will come up with something similar, but different, making compliance really really difficult. After all – these drugs are created and manufactured with the intent of selling nationally and internationally, which places them squarely within the scope of Federal law.

    In this scenario where medicinal drugs are federally regulated and recreational drugs are locally regulated, using prescription drugs without a prescription would by definition be recreational and fall under the applicable local ordinance. There are obvious problems that can be overcome by carefully crafted legislation, but I think it places the legislative and enforcement burdens in the right places.

    Disclaimer: I work for a big Pharma, but do not speak for them. I have no special knowledge of this subject matter and don’t work in a financial or legal capacity.

  • One thing to note is that medical spending is much lower in some states than others. I assume that this would true in counties and cities also.

  • David C

    Isn’t education already mostly left up to local control, No Child Left Behind excepted? If it hasn’t worked for education, why would getting the federal government out of the way work for drug laws or medicine?

  • ruralcounsel

    Local control of education is a myth; it died decades ago as states passed laws trying to equalize funding across towns and counties and states. Federal interference just made it worse, since there is hardly a school district around that doesn’t spend enormous resources on one thing or another because the federal funding requires it.

    I’ve heard a state prosecutor bemoan that our preoccupation with drug enforcement has caused the judiciary to parse our 4th Amendment doctrines so carefully that in his opinion, it had weakened his ability to prosecute many non-drug cases. In other words, the drug wars have impacted search and seizure under state constitutional law. The drug cases have created a lot of unfavorable precedent. While he didn’t endorse recreational drug use, he thought the war on drugs was an abysmal failure, and not merely because they hadn’t stopped the recreational use. I thought that was an interesting perspective.

    The fostering of widespread disrespect for law, as pointed out in the Ken Burns documentary on Prohibition, is also one of the unintended consequences. Localizing recreational drug laws would be one way of allowing our population to ‘vote with their feet’ or their vacation dollars. Not unlike what we’ve done with gambling and having places like Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Illegal gambling can’t possibly be the local problem for most places that it used to be since gamblers can now travel and do it legally.

  • GWalker

    Maybe when welfare recipients are tested for drugs, drug use will go down. Why should I have to pay them to get high on drugs? I don’t mind helping those can’t work. I don’t want to support those who won’t work.

    • What if it takes less resources to maintain a decent quality of life on drugs versus sober? Any difference from ems using virtual reality?

    • Thomas Bartscher

      That’s funny, right now you are paying for all the legal overhead caused by the war on drugs.

  • Support the Health Care Compact. — It will give power over legislating health care to individual states.