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Legalized Drugs: Dumber Than You May Think

May 7, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 32 • By JOHN P. WALTERS
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Even smart people make mistakes​—​sometimes surprisingly large ones. A current example is drug legalization, which way too many smart people consider a good idea. They offer three bad arguments.

Photo of a woman holding a sign that says, "Marijuana is medicine"

First, they contend, “the drug war has failed”​—​despite years of effort we have been unable to reduce the drug problem. Actually, as imperfect as surveys may be, they present overwhelming evidence that the drug problem is growing smaller and has fallen in response to known, effective measures. Americans use illegal drugs at substantially lower rates than when systematic measurement began in 1979​—​down almost 40 percent. Marijuana use is down by almost half since its peak in the late 1970s, and cocaine use is down by 80 percent since its peak in the mid-1980s. Serious challenges with crack, meth, and prescription drug abuse have not changed the broad overall trend: Drug use has declined for the last 40 years, as has drug crime.

The decades of decline coincide with tougher laws, popular disapproval of drug use, and powerful demand reduction measures such as drug treatment in the criminal justice system and drug testing. The drop also tracks successful attacks on supply​—​as in the reduction of cocaine production in Colombia and the successful attack on meth production in the United States. Compared with most areas of public policy, drug control measures are quite effective when properly designed and sustained.

Drug enforcement keeps the price of illegal drugs at hundreds of times the simple cost of producing them. To destroy the criminal market, legalization would have to include a massive price cut, dramatically stimulating use and addiction. Legalization advocates typically ignore the science. Risk varies a bit, but all of us and a variety of other living things​—​monkeys, rats, and mice​—​can become addicted if exposed to addictive substances in sufficient concentrations, frequently enough, and over a sufficient amount of time. It is beyond question that more people using drugs, more frequently, will result in more addiction.

About a third of illegal drug users are thought to be addicted (or close enough to it to need treatment), and the actual number is probably higher. There are now at least 21 million drug users, and at least 7 million need treatment. How much could that rise? Well, there are now almost 60 million cigarette smokers and over 130 million who use alcohol each month. It is irrational to believe that legalization would not increase addiction by millions.

We can learn from experience. Legalization has been tried in various forms, and every nation that has tried it has reversed course sooner or later. America’s first cocaine epidemic occurred in the late 19th century, when there were no laws restricting the sale or use of the drug. That epidemic led to some of the first drug laws, and the epidemic subsided. Over a decade ago the Netherlands was the model for legalization. However, the Dutch have reversed course, as have Sweden and Britain (twice). The newest example for legalization advocates is Portugal, but as time passes the evidence there grows of rising crime, blood-borne disease, and drug usage.

The lessons of history are the lessons of the street. Sections of our cities have tolerated or accepted the sale and use of drugs. We can see for ourselves that life is not the same or better in these places, it is much worse. If they can, people move away and stay away. Every instance of legalization confirms that once you increase the number of drug users and the addicted, it is difficult to undo your mistake.

The most recent form of legalization​—​pretending smoked marijuana is medicine​—​is following precisely the pattern of past failure. The majority of the states and localities that have tried it are moving to correct their mistake, from California to Michigan. Unfortunately, Washington, D.C., is about to start down this path​s. It will end badly.

The second false argument for legalization is that drug laws have filled our prisons with low-level, non-violent offenders. The prison population has increased substantially over the past 30 years, but the population on probation is much larger and has grown almost as fast. The portion of the prison population associated with drug offenses has been declining, not growing. The number of diversion programs for substance abusers who commit crimes has grown to such an extent that the criminal justice system is now the single largest reason Americans enter drug treatment.

Despite constant misrepresentation of who is in prison and why, the criminal justice system has steadily and effectively focused on violent and repeat offenders. The unfortunate fact is that there are too many people in prison because there are too many criminals. With the rare exceptions that can be expected from human institutions, the criminal justice system is not convicting the innocent.

Most recently, crime and violence in Central America and Mexico have become the third bad reason to legalize drugs. Even some foreign leaders have joined in claiming that violent groups in Latin America would be substantially weakened or eliminated if drugs were legal.

Many factors have driven this misguided argument. First, while President Álvaro Uribe in Colombia and President Felipe Calderón in Mexico demonstrated brave and consequential leadership against crime and terror, such leadership is rare. For both the less competent and the corrupt, the classic response in politics is to blame someone else for your failure.

The real challenge is to establish the rule of law in places that have weak, corrupt, or utterly inadequate institutions of justice. Yes, the cartels and violent gangs gain money from the drug trade, but they engage in the full range of criminal activities​—​murder for hire, human trafficking, bank robbery, protection rackets, car theft, and kidnapping, among others. They seek to control areas and rule with organized criminal force. This is not a new phenomenon, and legalizing drugs will not stop it. In fact, U.S. drug laws are a powerful means of working with foreign partners to attack violent groups and bring their leaders to justice.

Legalization advocates usually claim that alcohol prohibition caused organized crime in the United States and its repeal ended the threat. This is widely believed and utterly false. Criminal organizations existed before and after prohibition. Violent criminal organizations exist until they are destroyed by institutions of justice, by each other, or by authoritarian measures fueled by popular fear. No honest criminal justice official or family in this hemisphere will be safer tomorrow if drugs are legalized​—​and the serious among them know it.

Are the calls for legalization merely superficial​—​silly background noise in the context of more fundamental problems? Does this talk make any difference? Well, suppose someone you know said, “Crack and heroin and meth are great, and I am going to give them to my brothers and sisters, my children and my grandchildren.” If you find that statement absurd, irresponsible, or obscene, then at some level you appreciate that drugs cannot be accepted in civilized society. Those who talk of legalization do not speak about giving drugs to their families, of course; they seem to expect drugs to victimize someone else’s family.

Irresponsible talk of legalization weakens public resolve against use and addiction. It attacks the moral clarity that supports responsible behavior and the strength of key institutions. Talk of legalization today has a real cost to our families and families in other places. The best remedy would be some thoughtful reflection on the drug problem and what we say about it.

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