President Donald Trump has frequently and disingenuously promised to help poor, minority communities. Meanwhile, his Attorney General Jeff Sessions has continuously attempted to repopularize failed drug war policies, from promising to reinstate the D.A.R.E. program to ordering prosecutors to pursue harsher sentences for drug crimes. Recently, Sessions even returned to his native Alabama to promote Trump’s “law and order” agenda in front of a room full of police officers.
But neither Trump nor Sessions see the obvious disconnect: Trump often mentions that minority and inner city communities are collapsing, but we could fix this if we stopped throwing so many of their entrepreneurs in prison for dealing drugs.
Few politicians would admit it, but dealing drugs is an inherently entrepreneurial act. Russell Simmons, CEO of Rush Communications (one of the largest African American owned media companies in the United States) learned how to maximize profits and gain independence by selling drugs at a young age. Simmons argues that, “If you look at all of the entrepreneurs, especially from years ago, a lot of them that were African-American had their experience in the street.” What if we shifted away from failed D.A.R.E.-style attitudes on drugs and actually recognized how many marketable skills come from the underground industry?
Black markets encourage aggression—not drugs. There’s nothing inherently brutal about selling marijuana.
Selling drugs attracts people with enterprising spirits. In his paper, “Drug Dealing and Legitimate Self-Employment,” economist Rob Fairlie argues that drug dealers are more likely to choose self-employment than non-dealers. The industry appeals to people who are “less risk averse, have more entrepreneurial ability, and have a preference for autonomy.”
Basically, drug dealers want to be their own bosses and are willing to assume large amounts of risk to do what rakes in cash. And learning to deal with risk is especially important for entrepreneurs––around 90 percent of startups fail. When you spend every day wondering if the cops will drag you off to jail, suddenly launching a new company and dealing with the associated stressors isn’t so daunting.
Dealers also learn how to manage inventory and satisfy clients. They recruit employees and are forced to think creatively so they can stand out in a crowded marketplace. And as one might expect, marketing is a lot harder when you can’t let the government know you exist––Facebook ads aren’t an option. For those who don’t end up in prison or in violent turf wars, these skills can serve them well in legal markets.
But due to decades of ludicrous Nixon- and Reagan-era policies, like Operation Intercept, one of the first anti-drug initiatives that’s celebrating its 48th anniversary this week, the drug war means tens of thousands of dealers must languish behind bars. In 2012, about 20,000 prison inmates were incarcerated for weed-related offenses alone. Another 20,000 were imprisoned for involvement with marijuana in addition to other crimes. Of those 40,000, the vast majority were involved in selling.
Legalizing pot frees these men and women to open stores and create jobs. In Colorado, legal weed created 18,000 new jobs in 2015 alone, providing a much-needed boost to poor communities. The nascent Nevada weed industry is expected to create more than 3,000 jobs over the next three years. Behind bars, prisoners can’t hone their marketable skills, start businesses, or contribute to the economy. The time they spend in prison hurts their communities twice: once by preventing them from working while behind bars, and again by killing the potential jobs they could have created in the legal marketplace. And the average prison sentence for marijuana is 88 months––as you can imagine, spending seven years behind bars is stunningly bad for one’s career. One Pew study found that incarceration reduced yearly earnings by 40 percent, controlling for other factors.
Plus, it’s not like the current incarceration scheme doesn’t completely enable inter-generational poverty. Children with incarcerated parents are three times more likely to go to jail or prison themselves. John Hagan, who led a 2012 White House conference on the impact of incarceration, notes that, “almost no children of incarcerated mothers make it through college.”
Sessions claims that the drug war destroys marginalized communities. Dealing drugs can lead to violence, but that’s because black markets encourage aggression, not drugs. There’s nothing inherently brutal about selling marijuana, as anyone who’s ever set foot in Boulder, Colorado knows. When drug dealers manage to avoid prison and violent turf wars, they become some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the United States. We should try to get out of their way and stop stigmatizing their profession––their skills are highly desirable, after all. And in the meantime, let’s cool it with the “law and order” talk that gets us nowhere.
Julian Adorney is a Young Voices Advocate and a FEE 2016 Thorpe Fellow. He’s been published in National Review, The Federalist, FEE, and Lawrence Reed’s anthology Excuse Me, Professor.
Liz Wolfe is managing editor of Young Voices. She lives in Austin, Texas, where she writes about criminal justice and libertarianism. Follow her on Twitter: @lizzywol.