The Corner

The Downside of Legalization

Our friend Robert VerBruggen has a good op-ed over at Real Clear Policy reconsidering his drug legalization libertarianism. He worries that legalizing hard drugs would not be the boon to mankind many libertarians and other legalizers like to think it would be.  

I was never so naive as to think there would be noincrease in drug use or abuse if drugs were legal. But I did think legalization would easily pass a practical cost-benefit test: reduce incarceration, if perhaps not as much as some might think; end an illegal market whose violence spills far beyond our borders; and expand personal freedom, all for the acceptable price of an extra overdose or other health problem here and there, plus maybe some extra property crimes by addicts stealing to feed their habit.

Drug addiction couldn’t go up that much. The War on Drugs is an utter failure and drugs are widely and cheaply available anyway. Everyone knows that.

Well, reality is not lining up with this view of the world. In 1999, Americans had fatal drug overdoses at a rate of 6 per 100,000. In 2014, that number stood at 14.8 per 100,000 — a rise of 8.8 per 100,000. To put this in perspective, America’s famously high homicide rate is about 5 per 100,000. And the overdose spike is apparently driven by a policy change much gentler than full legalization.

The general consensus seems to be that in recent decades, doctors started taking patients’ pain more seriously, and thus began prescribing opioid painkillers more generously. Some patients became addicted; others got medications they didn’t need and sold them. (It appears that most addicts are not getting their drugs directly from a doctor.) Efforts to clamp down on this problem may have had an effect on painkiller overdose deaths — there was a dip in 2012 and 2013 — but 2014 saw another record high. Many addicts are switching to heroin, another opioid with a staggering and growing death toll.

The notion that if we legalized heroin and cocaine — never mind allowed big corporations to mass produce and market them cheaply — it wouldn’t lead to more drug addicts and more death has always struck me as insane. That, in itself, isn’t a sufficient argument against legalization, at least for some people. We have freedom to make bad choices and all that. But people who want to make that case shouldn’t sell legalization as a costless no-brainer.

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