Are We Ready to Legalize Drugs? And Other FREAK-quently Asked Questions: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

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(Photo: Neeta Lind)

(Photo: Neeta Lind)

Our latest podcast is called “Are We Ready to Legalize Drugs? And Other FREAK-quently Asked Questions.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player in the post. You can also read the transcript; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) Once again, Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt take questions from you, our readers and listeners. 

In this installment, Joseph Fogan wants to know about the hidden costs of the war on drugs. The latest Gallup poll shows that 58 percent of Americans favor marijuana legalization (compared to just 12 percent in 1969). Are we really ready to legalize drugs in more than just a few states? And if the answer is yes, what will police do all day? Here’s what Levitt had to say:

We know there are a lot more police officers in places with more crime. So if there was no crime to deal with, there wouldn’t be many police officers. I mean, if you think about firefighters — talk about putting yourself out of a job, there aren’t any fires anymore. I don’t know what firefighters do all day. You could imagine that if all the crime went away, the police would end up looking a lot more like firefighters than they would like police officers. And we just wouldn’t need that many of them around.

This episode also features pitches from not one, but two listeners with ideas for how to help the ailing United States Postal Service; a discussion about whether putting video cameras in classrooms might improve low-performing schools; and we doff our caps to listener Ryan Harris, who asks “why don’t people wear hats anymore?”

The great thing about our FAQs (you can listen to earlier episodes here, here, here, here, here and here) is that we never really know what  Levitt will say; he has some truly unusual ideas. And thanks to all of you for all the good questions – keep them coming!


For a long time, I've been saying that our thinking about drug legalization is backwards. Some examples:

-The first drugs we should be talking about legalizing are opium and coca derivatives, since the prohibition of these drugs causes the greatest harm.

-Medical marijuana is not a good first step; rather, it is a disaster that will take the integrity out of any coherent argument for the legalization of marijuana or anything else.

-Right now much of the conversation is about decriminalizing use and pursuing suppliers instead. This will have the most damaging results because the prohibition of the supply side is what causes all the violence and mayhem. Thugs aren't shooting each other over their drug-taking, they're shooting each other over their drug-dealing. If anything, we should relax regulation over the supply side and keep regulation over the demand side.

-More to that last point, proponents of drug legalization tend to put forth arguments about accepting drug use as normal and healthy. There is some appropriateness for that with certain drugs in certain contexts--like taking hallucinogens under the supervision of a therapist to work out deep-rooted anxieties--but generally we should be coupling legal permissiveness with cultural restrictiveness to get the best results.

-We tend to think of drug legalization as a liberal cause and drug prohibition as a conservative cause, but this is historically backward, and for the most part remains backward even today. There was no such thing as federal drug prohibition until Progressive Democrats invented it a century ago with the Harrison Act (its centennial will fall on December 17th of this year). Through even the 1960s, the political Left were staunch supporters and expanders of drug prohibition. Joe Biden played a huge role in ramping up the war on drugs via civil asset forfeiture. Many drug legalization advocates consider the Obama administration way more hawkish on drugs than Bush Jr. was. Notice that Obama campaigned on eliminating the crack/cocaine sentencing disparity but only scaled it back to 18:1--which is still enormous. And when you look at other campaigns to put the government between substances and the Americans who choose to use them (cigarettes, fast food, cola, etc.) it is mostly liberal Democrats leading the charge.


Jack Waddington

Ninety nine percent ... that's 99%, of all our human problems could be solved by one single action ... by all of us.

Just abolish MONEY ... then police, the military, and many other professions like lawyers and politicians would all become obsolete. However in order for that to take place there would need to be a 'conceptual leap' for at least a critical mass of the us ... the people. Sadly, that critical mass is not there ... yet.

Should it not occur ... and soon ... then we (humans) are doomed to extinction ... and in the not too distant future.

How freaky might that be. We might then be able to dispense with "Freakonomics" ... also.



Sounds like you've been spending too much time at Colorado's new marijuana shops!

Amber Gustafson

On the topic of hat-wearing:
(This would make a great show by itself, by the way)
The real reason people wore hats (and no longer do so) is directly linked to hygiene and bathing frequency.
I spoke once with an historical interpreter at Living History Farms in Des Moines, Iowa regarding her bonnet. She was depicting life on a 1840's homestead and explained that her bonnet, aside from the obvious task of shielding her face from the sun, also served to keep her hair clean(er). With many tasks that caused chaff, dirt or other grime to become airborne; and with bathing being a weekly (or less frequent event due to it's demand of resources), the bonnet served to both keep her hair relatively clean AND to hide hair that was, by the end of the week, quite dirty.
Even those in upper class homes did not have fully modern plumbing as we would recognize it until the beginning of the 20th century - about the time hats began to wane in fashion. (My grandparents home, built in about 1903, had two bath tubs but no shower. Washing the body is easy but washing the hair, a bit more tricky in a tub.)
Around this time it was also the custom for upper/middle class women to make a weekly "beauty operator" to have their hair washed, dried, curled and set; a time- and money-intensive process. Wearing a hat kept the hair-do clean and hid a hair-do that was ready to be re-done.
Now that women wash and style their own hair almost daily (which began in the 1920's with the mass-production of things like curling irons and hair dryers), hats are no longer necessary. Unless, of course, you are having a "bad hair day."
Other interesting topics in this vein would be questions like, "Why don't women wear corsets any more?" (The answer, I believe has more to do with the weight of women's clothing then vs. now and less to do with figure modification) AND "With all those clothes and long skirts - and *outhouses* in *January* - how did women use the toilet?" (who knew those saucy Victorians actually were the originators of crotchless panties?)
Great show, gentlemen! Thank you!!



Apropos of headgear and hygene, Burns "To A Louse, On Seeing One On A Lady's Bonnet, At Church"


Lame blog... I point out a study of the IQ lowering effects of marijuana and that is censored? What cowards run this blog that such ordinary views are disallowed?


I think you've bought in to one logical/factual flaw of the 'War on Drugs' propaganda machine. That's the idea that a) strict law enforcement significantly reduces drug use; and the corrolary b) if it wasn't for enforcement, everybody would be doing drugs.

Reality is much different. Most of us have many more interesting things to do than drugs. It's people - and animals: see e.g. Alexander's 'Rat Park' experiments - who live in deprived environments that turn to drugs.


There are many outright lies spread by the drug war propaganda machine, but the particular logical/factual flaw you describe is more of just an overstatement. Yes, illicit drug use patterns follow waves and cycles independent of regulation, but it is disingenuous to say that reduction in drug law enforcement will not lead to some increase in drug use. That violates a basic principle in Econ 101: lower costs and consumption will rise.

What should also be mentioned is that legalization may lead to changes in who uses what kind of drugs, in what manner, and for what reason.

Aside from environment, there are also inborn traits that influence rates/likelihood of drug use as well. Some people have lower tolerances to certain chemicals due to evolution, some people have naturally lower impulse-control and gratification-delay ability, etc.

One more thing worth mentioning, since you brought up law enforcement, is that drug prohibition serves a useful purpose for cops, in that it is much easier to bust someone for drugs than to bust them for a violent crime or property crime. So, drug laws act as a proxy by which cops can nab people who are likely involved in other criminal behavior that is harder to prove.

Intuitively, this seems like a good idea likely to result in safer streets, but it actually makes streets more dangerous because the cycle goes like this: thug gets nabbed for drugs, goes to jail, learns how to be a real serious criminal, jail is overcrowded, thug gets released early as a "non-violent drug offender". And that's a best-case scenario!

As Steve Levitt pointed out, this gives cops plenty more work.

By the way, the drop in murder rate is masked by advances in emergency response technology. Violent crime may in fact have increased since the ramping up of the war on drugs.



I suspect this is wrong, though I know of no study that addresses the facts. However, it's certainly been my observation that it's fairly easy to obtain drugs despite all that enforcement. I've never known anyone to say that they'd start doing drugs if only they were legal. OTOH, I have known people to do them because they were illegal: high prices make them a luxury good, and the (perceived) cachet of being part of an elite who can do them with impunity only adds to the attraction. (Think e.g. certain Hollywood & Wall Street types, anfd their hangers-on.)

Enter your name...

What would happen if we put four cameras in a classroom?

The class clown would realize that he has a worldwide audience, plus perhaps a permanent record that he could use to brag about the "cool" way he disrupted class, and he would take advantage of it.

Charles D'Atri

You guys missed one of the most salient facts in your Postal Service discussion (and the reader contributions weren't much help as the underlying facts were often wrong.) With the growth of ecommerce, the fundamental business of the Postal Service, delivering stuff, is great, although continuing to evolve. The Postal Service's issue is, it isn't fish nor fowl. They're a business that has to ask Congress to change their rate card, rather than react to business conditions. They're also dictated to and constrained by Congress when they attempt to manage their retirement/pension liabilities/obligations. (A requirement by Congress that they account differently for their pension liabilities is one of the biggest factors in their current annual deficit.) They should be able to charge whatever is necessary to operate universal first class service profitably.


I want to strongly +1 Charles' point. The Stevens really missed this one big time, and it might be worth asking if a very strong free-market ideology could account for why it never occurred to either of them to raise the issue of whether the USPS is actually prevented by Congress from doing anything innovative that could make it more profitable. Start with the whole idea of zone pricing. They legally can't, period. The private competitors like UPS and Fedex have also spent a huge amount of lobbying money to make sure Congress actively prevents USPS from seriously competing with them. Economists call it "rent-seeking" and this is an industry that is pretty much defined today by successful rent-seeking at the expense of the public good in the form of an unhealthy public service provider.


The trouble with this discussion is we only discuss legalizing drugs, without looking at other issues that would have to be addressed at the same time. I would advocate legalizing all drugs, including stripping government of the authority to require prescriptions (except in cases like antibiotics where the effectiveness of the drug itself is damaged by unrestricted use).

We would need to make another change at the same time for legalization not to be a disaster; completely eliminate the ability to use intoxication or other impairment as a legal defense. In other words, if you intentionally take any substance that causes intoxication or impairment (and yes, that includes alcohol) any harm you commit as a result is likewise legally considered intentional and premeditated.

It's absurdly optimistic to think crime would disappear because drugs were legalized. There would probably be a reduction, but a lot of (probably most) crime involves obtaining money. Money is useful for a lot of things, including buying things that are legal.



I agree wholeheartedly with your first and second paragraphs. Your third paragraph assumes that most drug-related crime is committed by drug addicts trying to obtain money to buy drugs. That is incorrect: most drug-related crime is committed by drug dealers trying to obtain or retain their commercial real estate--or just doing stuff because they are mostly armed violent teenagers.


Actually just the opposite - my third paragraph assumes crime wouldn't drop much because most crime isn't directly related to drugs. Legalization would probably reduce the violent crime associated with the wholesale level of the illicit drug industry, but criminals in general will find other uses for what they steal or use it to buy more of what they bought before, gang members will still take issue with being "dissed" by rival gang members, and domestic violence (which most police consider the most dangerous type of call) may even increase. We'll still have rapists, terrorists, nutjobs who want to make some sort of statement and murders for insurance money. I'm all for legalizing drugs, with the qualifications noted, but I think the idea that crime is going to be significantly reduced is ridiculous.


I had heard that a contributing factor in hats going away was contributed to by the extinction of the passenger pigeon. Their were once 5 Billion of these birds they were reduced to by the early 1910's

1) It reduced the need for hats because it reduced the possibility of messed up hair.

2) Bird extinctions (including said pigeon) caused many early conservationists to protest feathered hats.

Mike B

Regarding the Post Office:

1) Almost ALL first class mail is profitable, even when you send it to Alaska.
2) The flat rate for letters is a government policy to help support rural areas that dates from the frontier days. It was essentially a cross subsidization scheme to support the unsettled rural areas.
3) The Post Office can only engage in the business areas that Congress specifically ALLOWS it to enter. This is because it is a government regulated monopoly.
4) The drop in First Class mail is what has caused the loss of profitability because it can be sorted automatically and weighs so little. All the junk mail is given steeply discounted rates that the post office is not able to raise due to Congress.

Mel Olson

I delivered mail for the USPS from 1977-1979 and I've taught high school from 1982 to the present. The discussion about the Postal Service displayed an astonishing amount of ignorance. The U.S. Congress has final say over the price and services of the USPS. The USPS recently tried to end Saturday delivery for financial reasons and was stymied. When the USPS was "privatized", it had to pre fund all of its pension obligations something other large concerns (e.g. General Motors) were not required to do. While the Congress says it wants the USPS to act like a business, it is a public good and when the USPS tries to make business decisions that upset the public the Congress hears their constituents and steps in to says "no."

Cameras in the classroom are one of those bad good ideas. The person asking the question assumes that cameras will have a "calming" effect on students and a quality effect on teachers. It will do the opposite. The rise of reality television has put a premium on eccentric and outrageous behavior. Students, especially immature junior high students, will view that as an opportunity for their "fifteen minutes of fame." Teachers will become more staid and their methods less experimental because a single incident or failure could be used in a disciplinary way. Teaching is a little like being a comedian; timing matters, delivery matters, content matters and those things have to be worked out in front of a "live" audience which sometimes doesn't go all that well the first time. A camera in the classroom would pressure a teacher to produce a "home run" every time and to be a constant paragon of virtue. Students and teachers have tempers and bad days. Allowing those isolated incidents, for both teachers and students, to live forever would be unfair - especially to an immature fourteen year old.



The obvious answer to Dubner’s question about postal rates is “because it’s the law.” Postal rates are set by Congress, and part of the USPS Legal Mandate is that they are required to deliver anywhere in the country for a flat rate. On top of Congress’s status quo bias and their general inability to get anything done, rural areas are strongly over-represented and they would be the first to see their rates go up, or even their Post Offices close. So I don’t see this change happening anytime soon.

Des in NJ

long term listener first time poster. i found the hat questions funny and i recall the downfall of men wearing hats attributed to JFK and how he stopped wearing them as a break in tradition and a younger next generation thing .... hats sales plummet overnight...


I don't think cameras in classrooms will help that much because the parents who would watch online are the parents that are already involved with their children's education. Most of those students do well in school to begin with.

Seth Newsome

Interesting discussion all around, but I feel you really missed some important points about the post office. I'm not always a fan of the Heritage Foundation, but I found they have a pretty good run-down of the facts affecting the post office these days.

1. They can't change their fundamental business model even if they wanted to. There is a legal restriction that gives them a monopoly for certain types of deliveries, but restricts them from any "non-postal" business. Would the "certified email" idea count or not? Could lead to legal trouble for them.

2. The post office has to go running to Congress to make any changes in their business. Despite supposedly being an independent company now, they can't change their rates, their operating hours, their level of service, or much of anything serious without running to a dysfunctional group like the US congress.

3. They are required to pre-fund employee retirement benefits over a ridiculously short time frame. Congress gave them a mandate to pre-fund decades worth of pension benefits within a 10 year window. This isn't the only reason they are struggling, but this requirement came in the middle of all their other challenges that you mentioned.

I just wanted to bring this up because it really felt like you dropped the ball on this discussion, repeating received common wisdom about the post office failure instead of diving into the more nuanced discussion of their current problems.


josephine barajas

Why doesn't somebody make a reality show that helps feed the hungry people in the USA. Now that would be worth watching.


It simply makes no sense that some plants are unlawful to consume (e.g. coca, poppy, cannabis etc) whilst others are lawful to consume (e.g. grapes, tobacco and nutmeg). It's like saying it should be 'illegal to consume beef and pork (because too much red meat and fatty bacon is bad for your health) but legal to consume chicken and lamb' and then 'why should we legalise beef and pork when we have enough problems caused by the meats we already have i.e. fried chicken and lamb kebabs!'

Would it be sensible to punish people who prefer beefsteaks instead of fried chicken? Why is it okay to punish people who chose to consume a different psychoactive plant to the majority of people?


If it makes no sense to you, it's probably because you're not looking at the actual arguments put forward in defense of drug prohibition. I'm not saying I agree with those arguments, but they do have a logic to them even if they fail to be net-positive in the real world:

Drug prohibition has never been primarily expressly about protecting people from their own bad habits--that is only a byproduct. Eating too much bacon may give you heart problems, but it isn't going to impact your ability to drive your car safely or do your job well or raise your kids in a wholesome environment.

Also, it's hard to correlate beef and pork consumption with anything very useful from a law & order perspective. Carrying drugs around in public, meanwhile, is strongly correlated with other criminal activity.

Another aspect of the war on drugs is that it's always been mainly About The Children. The Progressives who started the war on drugs a century ago were mostly uppity feminists. In the mid-century, it was Concerned Moms groups who urged the government to crack down on LSD and marijuana. In the 1980s it was Nancy Reagan doing the same thing with her "Just Say No" campaign.

Meanwhile, most sensible people don't have a problem letting kids consume meat, even fried meat.

(Actually, scratch that: today, it's Michelle Obama stepping in telling kids "Let's Move" and what to eat, because apparently she knows better than their parents.)


Inner City Teacher

As a career changer coming from the business world to the most challenged middle schools in NYC, I look with a Freakonomic eye at what's going wrong in these schools. I've even gone from teaching in underperforming neighborhood schools to a school designed for overaged kids, meaning kids who have been left back again and again.
Cameras in class would have many pros and cons but those kids who are unable to sit and sustain desk work for a full period would not suddenly be "fixed" because cameras are there, thet would probably stop showing up. What the NYC Dept of Ed fears worse than anything would be parents and the public finding out how many kids have issues that are not being met.

Attention and focus issues are rampant, whether kids have been classified or not, but the underlying cause for dysfunction in class leads back to the home and the draconian high stakes testing regime these kids grew up with. Cameras will show the 'leaders' stirring up the 'followers' and even decent teachers unable to stem the tide of misbehavior because there is no longer anything left to hold over the heads of the most defiant kids.



US postal service might indeed go bust soon. And listening to the alternative ideas suggested, I was reminded about India Post, the postal service in India. There too, the postal service was facing a decline. They then reinvented themselves. India Post now provides savings account facility, life insurance policies and also has an independent recognised bank under them. They also act as a data collection repository for the government. The postal service there is now getting back to life from being in coma for some time.


I think you missed the mark on the segment about the USPS. It isn't like private-sector businesses or even like its competitors in parcel delivery, in that it is constitutionally mandated and answerable to the U.S. Congress, and is not free to make its own business decisions. The USPS charges the same rate to send a letter everywhere because it is required to, and it has to get congressional approval for many business decisions that FedEx and UPS are free to handle as they see fit, for better or for worse. Recently the USPS tried to cut Saturday delivery, and Congress declared that they were required to provide it. UPS and FedEx deliver on Saturdays, but only for their more expensive expedited services and for an additional charge on top of that.

UPS and FedEx also charge more for delivery to residential addresses as opposed to commercial ones, charge more for rural areas than for urban ones or destinations with higher service density, closer to their hubs, etc. So clearly that isn't too complicated to manage. The USPS just isn't allowed to do it that way for the most part. They do offer a small variety of "regional rate" boxes but these are only available under certain specific circumstances. UPS and FedEx rates are probably not a perfect representation of the actual difference in cost between delivery to different addresses; they are probably more a balance between the difference in cost and what customers will accept. And it does not take an ideal or perfect correlation to still be an improvement on a flat fee.



The "pay for e-mail" model already exists. You are able to sign your e-mail with a certificate (or use smart cards, or tokens). Those certificates cost something, companies exist that create and sell smart cards, and RSA, for one, makes a lot of money off of tokens. In fact, having a system that processes the certificates, issues certificates, etc cost quite a lot. And organizations that value having an e-mail signed so that you can verify the e-mail came from someone in particular pay that cost. You, as an individual, can do it too. Verisign will sell you a certificate!

Again, the USPS missed the boat. And while yes, the U.S. Congress has helped keep the USPS tied up in red tape so that it missed all those boats, there could have been someone at the USPS that realized they were missing those boats and done something to cut the red tape. But there were too many who thought that the Congress would always be there to help make the USPS viable. Neither rain, nor snow, just too big to, ahem, fail.