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.
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 paths. 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.