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Economist speaks against ‘just say no’

Libertarian favors legalization

Friday, September 26, 2008

Correction appended.

After growing up with “Just Say No” with television commercials imploring them to be “Above the Influence,” today’s college students have spent their youths grounded in America’s so-called “war on drugs.” But on Tuesday night, students filled List Auditorium to hear one man’s take on exactly why the whole campaign makes no sense.

Jeffrey Miron, Harvard economics professor, outspoken libertarian and staunch advocate of drug legalization, told his audience that since his positions tend to be unpopular, he gets a “weird feeling” when an audience agrees with him.

Miron focused his lecture on deconstructing the liberal and libertarian arguments on drug policy, and differentiating them on the basis of liberals’ interest in decriminalization versus libertarians’ agenda to legalize them completely.

The main difference, he said, is that liberals, while “happy to defend the rights of someone who uses drugs,” are not as interested in legalizing the market to protect sellers. This, Miron said, is “just bizarre” and “illogical” to libertarians.

“Decriminalization is not going to get rid of the problems,” Miron said, citing issues that would remain problematic even under decriminalization, such as questionable quality control, infringements on civil liberties and violent tensions between rival drug dealers.

On the other hand, libertarians, Miron said, believe in the legalization of “all drugs – no exceptions.”

And while he said that he was against most legal restrictions on the sale, purchase and use of drugs, he acknowledged that it’s not practical to “legalize marijuana like toothpaste.”

But where liberals would call for a heavy “sin tax,” so as to provide an obstacle to use, libertarians are skeptical. Under the rationale that drugs have a negative impact on society, Miron said, “almost anything” from Sudafed to late night TV could carry similar effects.

Miron also addressed several other aspects of regulation, such as age restrictions and parameters for ethical advertising. Both of these can make decriminalization more palatable, he said, but added that neither is in line with the libertarian viewpoint that “says, ‘Let people do what they want and let them bear the consequences.'”

Drug use, he added, is “shrouded in this mystery.” He ascribed this attitude to his belief that the federal government has “hyperbolized” drug use, an action that he said ultimately “just makes them look like idiots.”

Miron admitted that the legalization of drugs would almost certainly lead to an increase in casual users and more experimentation.

“If (cocaine) were legal, I would try it,” he said, to “see what the fuss has been about for the last 85 or 90 years.”

But Miron also acknowledged that his viewpoint is considered extreme and is not likely to be taken up any time soon by politicians.

“There are no votes to be gotten for a politician who’s soft on drugs,” he said as a means of explaining why he believes the issue hasn’t been on the forefront of the American political scene.

Still, he said, in comparison to the United States, other countries have taken much greater strides toward the decriminalization, and in some cases legalization, of drugs. He pointed to European countries like the Netherlands and Spain as well as smaller-scale efforts in Canada and Latin America.

When it comes to drug prohibition, he said, “the U.S. has always been the most extreme.”

Ben Mossbarger ’10, president of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, one of the groups sponsoring the lecture, said that the group thought “a new perspective was really necessary.”

It’s important to realize that “it’s not just one group of people trying to legalize drugs,” Mossbarger said. He added that he thought the lecture “helped people construct two-sided arguments” about the issue.

Gregory Anderson ’10 added that it “brought up new questions in people’s minds.”

In addition to SSDP, the lecture was sponsored by the Brown Spectator and the Brown College Republicans.

Due to an editing error, a subheading and caption accompanying an article in yesterday’s Herald (“Economist speaks against ‘just say no,'” Sept. 25) said economist Jeffrey Miron favors decriminalization of drugs. Miron favors legalization.

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