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March 08, 2005

It’s Time to Legalize Drugs

America’s second attempt at prohibition has been even more harmful than our first.  I think legalizing adult consumption of all narcotics and hallucinogens and whatever else people take will do much more good than harm for both America and the world as a whole.

Marijuana (I inhaled), alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine are the only “recreational” drugs I have any personal experience with.  I doubt if that menu would be different if the laws were different.  I’m afraid of mind-altering drugs.  I wouldn’t recommend marijuana to anyone and it’s obvious that alcohol can be and nicotine almost always is dangerous.  Nevertheless, I think we do more harm than good by outlawing marijuana, heroin, crack, LSD, meth, and all the other things I’m too old to have heard of.

Afghanistan is once more becoming a poppy-growing powerhouse.  Unless the present government is prepared to be as dictatorial and ruthless as the Taliban, poor people are not going to stop growing a lucrative crop that feeds their families.  But, as long as the cultivation of poppies is illegal, the enormous middleman profits will go to outlaws – warlords in this case.  Making opium illegal makes it much more profitable than it would be if it were legal – and assures that the profit stays in exactly the wrong hands.

Al-Qaeda is partially drug-financed.  The war on terror is a necessary and expensive war.  We can’t afford both it and the moribund “war on drugs”.  More importantly, the war on drugs creates enormous financing opportunities for our opponents in the war on terror.

In Central America the “wrong hands” are both right-wing and left-wing private militias.  Nominally ideological, these are really gangs of thugs providing high priced “protection” to farmers, reaping huge profits as middle-men, and terrifying and corrupting every level of government.  In Bolivia a left-wing, irresponsible, anti-American government has come to power in a large degree because of understandable peasant resentment of a right-wing, elitist, pro-American government that burnt their coca crops.

The “wrong hands” reach across the world.  The gangs that terrify American cities and are spilling out into the suburbs are the end of the distribution chain that starts in Afghanistan, Columbia, and Bolivia.  Drug money corrupts our cops just as it does police around the world.  Drug kingpins (until they die) are the too-obvious success stories on the mean streets where there aren’t happy endings. Motorcycle gangs support themselves with meth labs.  This is all sadly similar to Al Capone’s Chicago.  Some lessons apparently have to be learned twice.

Keeping criminals in jails has reduced violent crimes – and I’m for that.  But there’d be a lot more room without building more prisons if we weren’t locking up drug users and sellers.

Because drugs move through a huge criminal infrastructure, we can’t control their quality nor can we stop the criminals from selling to kids.  Legal but regulated (and taxed) drugs should be available for sale to adults.  To me that means people over 18 but that’s a different argument for a different post. There should be severe penalties for selling drugs to people under 18 and draconian penalties for selling them to anyone under 14.  I think we can be more successful than we are today at keeping drugs out of children if the drug trade is in the open.  I don’t think the teeny-bopper market can finance a huge criminal infrastructure by itself.

The end of alcohol prohibition did not result in a huge increase in alcoholism even though street prices came down.  I don’t think that the end of drug prohibition will result in a significant increase in drug addiction. Getting drugs out into the regulatable open may help us deal with abuse, contaminated supply, and use by minors. It will certainly end the argument over clean needles to prevent the spread of AIDS.

In the end, adults who want to destroy themselves will.  There is no reason to make them overpay and deal with criminals to buy their poison.  There is no reason other than the illusion of doing good to make drugs so profitable for criminals and terrorists.

If we want to redress the balance between growing poppies and growing coffee in Afghanistan, we need to make the poppies legal; that will lower their price on the world market. Ditto for Coca in Bolivia.

We can’t ban “sin”.  In trying to, we just make the trade more lucrative.  It’s time to regulate other drugs as we do alcohol.  And time to put the enormously dangerous and destructive illegal drug trade out of business.

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Becker and Posner have written recently about legalizing drugs. So did Tom Evslin a while ago. While I agree with the overall sentiment that the war on drugs has been a failure, I believe that the alternative of legalized drugs poses many challenges... [Read More]

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