“look at alcohol!”

Edited copy of Image:The Brewer designed and e...
Edited copy of Image:The Brewer designed and engraved in the Sixteenth. Century by J Amman.png (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I frequently find myself in discussions about drug policy. I feel strongly that incarcerating people for possession is stupid and wrong, but I’m reluctant to legalize drugs. (I think there are a lot of options in between.) In these discussions, I inevitably hear someone say, “Look at alcohol. It’s way worse and it’s legal!” My response is always, “Exactly. Look at alcohol. It’s a public health and public safety disaster.”

Mark Kleiman points out that higher alcohol taxes would reduce battery, burglary and murder. The problem? The power of the alcohol industry’s lobby. Michigan has been incredibly revenue starved and we haven’t raised the beer tax since 1966. And, the beer tax is a flat tax per barrel, so there haven’t even been any increases in revenues because of inflation.

From a recent Kleiman interview [emphasis min]:

Matthews: No, of course not, single-malt all the way. But how much power do the spirits companies have? It seems like they’d fight any price increase.

Kleiman: Much power. The spirits guys are not really important because they’re not the real market. The real problem is beer. The beer guys are powerful. It’s two thirds of the market. Not only do they have heavy campaign contributions to politicians, because they’re state regulated and thus have a stake in state politics, but customers don’t dislike their beer company, so if they get a political message from the beer company, they’ll respond.

Contrast that with tobacco, with a smaller number of lower status users who hate their providers. The cigarette companies have absolutely no luck mobilizing smokers. Smokers hate tobacco companies. It’s easy to say it’s just a tax on responsible drinking until you do the math. It would cost a typical beer drinker $36 a year. The man who’d get hit is the 10 beer a day drinker, and he’s the guy we want to hit.

Taxation is just about the perfect way to control alcohol use. It’s not complete, because you need controls for the real problem drinkers. But if we tripled the alcohol tax it would reduce homicide by 6 percent. And you’re not putting anybody in jail. But instead we spend our time talking about doing marijuana testing for welfare recipients.

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