Steve Chapman

Falling prices indicate the stuff is getting more abundant and available, notwithstanding all the cops collaring stoners. The vast majority of high school kids say pot is easy to get.

You might assume that more lenient policies would guarantee an epidemic of drug use. In fact, the Netherlands, which has all but legalized weed, has fewer potheads than we do, particularly among young people.

"Globally, drug use ... is not simply related to drug policy, since countries with stringent user-level illegal drug policies did not have lower levels of use than countries with liberal ones," concluded the World Health Organization.

None of this is new, but it has fresh relevance because of budgetary pressures that have forced citizens to ask what on earth the drug war is accomplishing. Californians, whose state government is in a bottomless fiscal hole, will vote next month on an initiative to legalize cannabis. One big selling point is that it could yield a $1.4 billion windfall to state coffers.

What is true for the Golden State is true for the other 49. In a new study for the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron and research associate Katherine Waldock estimate that, nationally, legalizing and taxing marijuana would save $8.7 billion in enforcement costs and harvest $8.7 billion in revenue.

Instead of lavishing money arresting and incarcerating recreational drug users, the drug users would provide funds for the rest of us. Most of them would be more than happy to do so in exchange for the freedom to indulge their habits. And the evidence suggests that we would not even see an increase in drug use.

Substance abuse is known to impair clear thinking and good judgment. But it's the people pushing harsh drug laws who seem to be lost in a fog.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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