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‘I Personally, and my Administration’s Position, Is that Legalization is Not the Answer’


As many of you know, I have been busy over the past ten years going after Republicans who betray their alleged small-government principles by embracing corporate welfare or more government spending. Sadly, I have spent little to no time going after Democrats who betray their alleged pro–civil liberty principles. Yet I have been wondering where, for instance, are the Democrats who are willing to fight to put an end to the War on Drugs and its extensive curtailment of civil liberties? The evidence is quite overwhelming that the War on Drugs has utterly failed, but where are the Democrats who are willing to go to the mat for the thousands of Americans (a majority of them black and Hispanic) who are put in jail every year for non-violent drug-related crimes?

At least, since this weekend, we know where the president stands on this issue. While attending the Summit of the Americas in Colombia (a country that has been paying a heavy price for the failed policy), he said that it is okay for us to debate the pros and cons of the War on Drugs but “I personally, and my administration’s position, is that legalization is not the answer.”

What is the answer then? I mean, even if you think that using drugs is a terrible idea (like I do), it should be obvious by now that the War on Drugs has failed to convince people not to use drugs. Moreover, the importance of the drug trade (in volume and dollar amount) is a powerful statement about the natural inclination of people to exchange goods and services even in the face of powerful obstacles. Certainly, the government has a terrible track record at stopping people from doing what they want to do whether it is with drugs, alcohol, or prostitution. Besides, as Reason’s Jacob Sullum explains, “Banning a product people want creates the very incentives that ensure the ban will be ineffective.”

#more#Obviously, one of the reasons for the failure of the War on Drugs is that the government is the wrong entity to lead this war. First of all, the government rarely succeeds in addressing most of the problems it sets out to resolve (think job creation or pollution). In addition, history has shown that policies like this one have a tendency to corrupt the government itself.

But let’s not forget the consequences of the War on Drugs. As George Will recently explained in the Washington Post:

More Americans are imprisoned for drug offenses or drug-related probation and parole violations than for property crimes. And although America spends five times more jailing drug dealers than it did 30 years ago, the prices of cocaine and heroin are 80 to 90 percent lower than 30 years ago.

In “Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know,” policy analysts Mark Kleiman, Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken argue that imprisoning low-ranking street-corner dealers is pointless: A $200 transaction can cost society $100,000 for a three-year sentence. And imprisoning large numbers of dealers produces an army of people who, emerging from prison with blighted employment prospects, can only deal drugs. Which is why, although a few years ago Washington, D.C., dealers earned an average of $30 an hour, today they earn less than the federal minimum wage ($7.25).

Will has never taken a clear position on the legalization issue, but he just recently wrote two pieces on the issue (here is the other.) He also acknowledges several other facts about prohibition such as:

More Americans are imprisoned for drug offenses or drug-related probation and parole violations than for property crimes. And although America spends five times more jailing drug dealers than it did 30 years ago, the prices of cocaine and heroin are 80 to 90 percent lower than 30 years ago [...]

Dealers, a.k.a. “pushers,” have almost nothing to do with initiating drug use by future addicts; almost every user starts when given drugs by a friend, sibling or acquaintance [...]

Kleiman, Caulkins and Hawken say that, in developed nations, cocaine sells for about $3,000 per ounce — almost twice the price of gold. And the supply of cocaine, unlike that of gold, can be cheaply and quickly expanded. But in the countries where cocaine and heroin are produced, they sell for about 1 percent of their retail price in the United States. If cocaine were legalized, a $2,000 kilogram could be FedExed from Colombia for less than $50 and sold profitably here for a small markup from its price in Colombia, and a $5 rock of crack might cost 25 cents. Criminalization drives the cost of the smuggled kilogram in the United States up to $20,000. But then it retails for more than $100,000 [...]

Cartels have oceans of money for corrupting enforcement because drugs are so cheap to produce and easy to renew. So it is not unreasonable to consider modifying a policy that gives hundreds of billions of dollars a year to violent organized crime.

There are many reasons to end the War on Drugs: It has failed, it has led to substantial violations of civil liberties, and it has led to an increase in crime and corruption which are the inevitable side-effects of trying to discourage drug use through government intervention, police forces, and prison sentences. Here is another reason. Ending the War on Drugs would reduce federal, state, and local deficits.

According to Harvard University’s Jeffrey Miron and Katherine Waldock of Stern School of Business at New York University, legalizing drugs could save roughly $41 billion a year in government expenditure on enforcement of prohibition. Some $25 billion in savings would accrue to state and local governments. Only legalizing marijuana would reduce the savings to $8.7 billion.

Better yet, we could legalize drugs and then impose taxes on their sale. The authors find that drug legalization could yield $46.7 billion annually. (A few years ago, Nick Gillespie made that same case and suggested adding gambling and prostitution to the list.)

Here is an important symposium from the July 1, 1996, issue of National Review, titled “The War on Drugs Is Lost.” I wrote about the sad record set by the U.S. with regard to the number of people who are behind bars here.

Update: Based on the comments below I would like to add the following: Yes, I think using drugs is a bad idea. However, I also believe that people should be free to do stupid things (even extremely stupid things) with their lives and their bodies as long as they don’t hurt others. It should also be noted that decriminalization has been successfully tried in countries like Portugal. For these reasons, and more, I think the United States should give a chance to personal responsibility and freedom. I bet that we would be nicely surprised.