Legalization–I much prefer the term «decriminalization» or «normalization»–means different things to different people. To some it simply means taking the crime, and the profit, out of the drug business. For some, it’s a rallying cry, in much the same way that «repeal prohibition» was used, 60 years ago, for bringing people together from across the political spectrum. That’s why one day my allies on a panel may be William F. Buckley, George Shultz, or economist Milton Friedman, and on the next day it may be Ira Glasser of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Legalization also refers to a framework of analysis–in particular, cost-benefit analysis. If we look at the current drug prohibition policies and determine, as best we can, their costs and benefits, and then compare them with the costs and benefits of alternative options, it seems to many of us that the best mix ends up looking a lot more like legalization than it does like the current situation.
Finally, legalization implies degrees of emphasis rather than absolutes. For example, alcohol is legal, but it is not legal to drive under the influence of alcohol or to sell it to children. Conversely, we speak about cocaine and the opiates as illegal, but in fact doctors can prescribe these drugs.
Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke has suggested that if we are going to have a «War Against Drugs,» it is a war that should be headed not by the Attorney General or even by a Drug Czar, but by the Surgeon General. In other words, drug policy should not rely first and foremost on criminal justice sanctions but on public health approaches, combined with some degree of respect for the rights of adult American citizens to make their own choices–even bad ones.
The Decent Things to do
Personally, when I talk about legalization, I mean three things: The first is to make drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, and heroin legal–under fairly restricted conditions, but not as restricted as today. Second is a convergence in our substance abuse policy. We need a policy that is tougher on alcohol and especially tougher on tobacco–not with criminal laws so much as with other measures that would make them less available and less attractive. And at the same time be tough on marijuana, cocaine, and heroin as well, but while relying far less on criminal sanctions.
And third is to more intelligently manage our resources–to stop pouring the billions of dollars that we are now spending on law enforcement approaches down the drain and put them into drug treatment and drug abuse prevention instead.
Drug treatment is certainly no panacea. Most people who go into it end up backsliding. But it does help some people: It makes them less likely to die from overdoses and less likely to steal or commit other crimes. The evidence shows that it is worth doing, both for society and for drug abusers themselves. Even without coercing people into treatment, there are already waiting lines for the available treatment facilities.
More important, though, than drug treatment is drug abuse prevention. And here I am talking not so much about K-12 drug education but about «nonspecific» services such as prenatal and postnatal care, Head Start programs, inner-city education, and job training. These approaches are not just things in which the United States lags behind most other advanced industrial democracies in providing, they also seem to be the best drug prevention approaches ever developed–if you evaluate them in terms of producing non- drug-abusing, productive, tax-paying citizens down the road. These are not just the decent and humane things to do. They also turn out to be, dollar for dollar, a lot more cost-effective than building more jails.
The Solution becomes the Problem
Fundamentally, we need to consider legalization because the criminal justice approaches of the past have failed, and those of the present and future are likewise largely doomed to failure. This has nothing to do with squabbles between law enforcement agencies, or corruption in Third World countries, or whether or not we have a Drug Czar, or whether or not his name is William Bennett. Rather, it reflects the nature of the commodity, the nature of the market, and the lucrativeness of it all.
Criminal justice approaches have not only failed to solve the problem, they have made matters far worse. Most of what people identify as part and parcel of the drug problem are in fact the results of drug prohibition, just as when people talked about the alcohol problem 60 years ago, most of what they identified were the results of alcohol prohibition. Let’s look very quickly at some of these approaches: international enforcement, interdiction, and domestic enforcement (of high-level traffickers as well as their street-level sellers).
Can we keep drugs from being exported to the United States? No, we can’t. These drugs can be grown virtually everywhere, and to try preventing export from any one place results in «push down, pop up.» Push down heroin coming out of Turkey, and it pops up in Mexico. Push it down in Mexico, and it pops up in Southeast Asia. We have pushed down in so many places that it pops up virtually everywhere now. The United States is a multi-source heroin importing country. The same is true with regard to marijuana and cocaine.
Another reason is that international law enforcement has but a tiny effect on the ultimate domestic price of drugs. Even if you double, triple, or quadruple the foreign price, it has almost no impact on the streets. And finally, this is a business from which hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people in Latin America and Asia are earning a very good living. The rugs are usually indigenous to their areas–opium in parts of Asia, for example, cannabis in Jamaica and parts of Africa, and coca that goes back thousands of years in Latin America–and cause few local problems. Moreover, they appear to bring in much more money than any alternative would provide.
Thus if you spray Latin American peasants’ drug crops and try to persuade them to grow macadamia nuts instead, they respond by hiding their crops. And if you go down there, as William Bennett’s people have done, and say, «Don’t you understand how immoral you are being? You are poisoning the youth of America,» the peasants are unimpressed. «Don’t lecture us about morality,» they say. «Our moral obligation is to do the best we can for ourselves, our families, and our communities. If that means selling this drug, which is native to our country anyway, then so be it.» And they might well add another point: «While you Nortamericanos are talking to us about morality, your trade representatives are going around the world shoving down tariff barriers so that your farmers can export more tobacco. Are you so much on a moral high ground?»
Costs of Enforcement
What about interdiction? I don’t know anybody who believes anymore that it makes a difference. Drugs can come into the country in any which way, and in small amounts–arriving by boat, plane, and car, hidden in flowers, chocolates, and statues. Looking for drugs is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Interdiction has worked somewhat with respect to marijuana. But the success has proven counterproductive. The Coast Guard found that as it realized a few successes in interdicting marijuana, the drug lords seemed to be switching to cocaine. And why not? It is less bulky, less smelly, more compact, and more lucrative. This pretty much parallels the responses of bootleggers during prohibition, who switched from beer to hard liquor.
The other consequence of the marijuana interdiction «success» was to transform the country into perhaps the number-one producer of marijuana in the world. Some people think that the United States now produces the world’s best marijuana, in fact, and that if the dollar were to drop lower, we would become a major exporter of marijuana.
What about domestic enforcement? If you go after the big drug traffickers–the people who most profitably and egregiously violate the drug laws–it makes little difference. Every time you arrest Mr. Number One, there is Mr. Number Two to fill his shoes. Indeed, it is often from Number Two that the police get the information to arrest Number One.
Similarly, with street-level enforcement, you can clean up some neighborhoods–at least for a while– but can you, for very long, keep drugs out of the hands of people who really want them? You have the same push-down, pop-up effect on the streets as there is on the global scale. Push down on 102nd Street and guess what pops up on 104th Street?
Now, law enforcement does accomplish some things. It reduces availability a little, increases the price, and deters some people. But the costs and other negative consequences of continuing to focus on criminal justice end up making a lot of things much worse.
Consider the direct costs. In 1987, we spent something like 10 billion dollars just enforcing drug laws. It may be close to 20 billion this year. Drug-law violators–and here I am not talking about drug-related crimes but drug-law violations such as possession, dealing, distribution, and manufacturing–are the number-one cause of imprisonment in New York state prisons, in Florida prisons, and as far as I know, in other state prisons as well. They accounted for about 40 percent of all felony indictments in the New York City courts last year and for over 52 percent in Washington, D.C.–quadruple what it was four years ago.
When cops say that the urban criminal justice system is becoming synonymous with drug enforcement systems, they are increasingly correct. In the federal prisons, 40 percent of the people there are there on drug-law violations; between three-quarters of a million and a million people were arrested last year on drug charges. We now have one million people behind bars in the United States, practically double what the number was just 10 years ago. And a rapidly rising percentage of them are there for violating drug laws.
But although the direct costs are enormous, the indirect costs are far more severe. Drug prohibition is responsible for all sorts of violence and crime–from street-level theft to high-level corruption–that seemingly have little to do with drugs per se.
Consider this: Tobacco is at least as addictive as heroin and cocaine, but have you ever worried about being mugged by a tobacco addict? Of course not, because it is cheap–too cheap, in my view. Heroin and cocaine cost much more to buy, even though they don’t cost much more to produce. They are expensive because they are illegal, and addicts are obliged to raise the income, typically illegally, to pay for them. That would change under a maintenance system, or other forms of drug legalization, in which the prices were lower.
And the systemic violence of the drug-crime connection would also change. There would be far less need for illicit drug traffickers, and thus far fewer occasions for them to settle disputes among themselves by shooting one another, shooting cops and innocent bystanders (including kids) along the way.
Another cost, not much talked about, is the impact of prohibition on drug quality. Simply stated, drugs are more dangerous because they are illegal. Just as tens of thousands of people died or were blinded or poisoned by bad bootleg liquor 60 years ago, perhaps the majority of overdose deaths today are the result of drug prohibition.
Ordinarily, heroin does not kill. It addicts people and makes them constipated. But people overdose because they don’t know what they are getting; they don’t know if the heroin is four percent or 40 percent, or if it is cut with bad stuff, or if it is heroin at all–it may be a synthetic opiate or an amphetamine-type substance.
Just imagine if every time you picked up a bottle of wine, you didn’t know whether it was 8 percent alcohol or 80 percent alcohol, or whether it was ethyl alcohol or methyl alcohol. Imagine if every time you took an aspirin, you didn’t know if it was 5 milligrams or 500 milligrams.
Life would be a little more interesting, and also a little more dangerous. Fewer people might take those drugs, but more would get sick and die. That is exactly what is happening today with the illicit drug market. Nothing resembling an underground Food and Drug Administration has emerged to regulate the quality of illicit drugs on the streets, and the results are much more deadly.
My strongest argument for legalization, though, is a moral one. Enforcement of drug laws makes a mockery of an essential principle of a free society–that those who do no harm to others should not be harmed by others, and particularly not by the state. The vast majority of the 60 to 70 million Americans who have violated the drug laws in recent years have done no harm to anybody else. In most cases, they have done little or no harm even to themselves. Saying to those people, «You lose your driver’s license, you lose your job, you lose your freedom,» is, to me, the greatest societal cost of our current drug prohibition system.