Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Follow the Money

There's a fantastic old series of Bloom County cartoons that takes dead aim at the "war on drugs."Oliver Wendell Jones, boy genius/hacker, created a successful hair growth tonic derived from the sweat of Bill the Cat. It's successful, to an extent, until an unforeseen side effect emerged - those who used it would be prone to fits of uncontrolled "ack"ing. The Government, sensing the danger that Oliver's Cat Sweat Scalp Tonic posed to the general public, declared it a controlled substance and illegal to possess or sell. Immediately, the black market in scalp tonic boomed and the boys began to make big bucks (Milo, remembering what his mother taught him, sent the Government a letter thanking them for pumping up their business).

One strip in that series I thought rang particularly true. A tough looking youth, bundled up against the cold, stands on a street corner behind a sign that says "illegal cat-sweat scalp tonic - $12,000 a bottle," when a well dressed woman with a clipboard steps up:

WOMAN: Hello, young underclass youth . . . I'm from the Government. We'd like to know why you prefer a life of crime making $20,000 a week selling scalp tonic when you could be working honestly at McDonald's.

YOUTH: Allergic to french fries.

WOMAN: Oh! We have a program for that!
The point is obvious. Despite moralistic platitudes, crime indeed does pay, and quite well in some instances. There is a strong economic incentive for folks without a lot of other options to sling drugs to make money. The perverse part, of course, is that it is the very illegality that creates the black market that leads to that incentive.

One way of dealing with that issue? Legalization, as argued in this The Times (of London) column. It makes a lot of sense. What we're doing now certainly isn't working.

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