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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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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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