America After Prohibition
The next debate over drug legalization: How would it work?
Laws that attempt to banish drugs from our society do so at the expense of human life, law and order, and individual liberty. Despite the sincere desire of many Americans to do something about drug abuse, the editors of REASON believe that they will not forever support a cure that is worse than the disease.
The current debate over legalization indicates that the time for change is coming. But Mr. and Mrs. Citizen, as Dr. Norman Zinberg calls them, want to know what legalization would mean in practice. Which drugs should be legalized?
How and where would they be sold? What are the likely consequences? What should be done about drug addiction? REASON asked some notable opponents of drug prohibition to speculate on what the world would look like if drugs were legal.
—Craig M. Collins
The Corner Drugstore
by David Boaz
Defenders of drug prohibition have two basic tactics. One is to repeat over and over, "Drugs are dangerous. Therefore, they should be illegal"—a syllogism that would earn a failing grade in Logic 101. The other is to challenge their opponents to describe exactly how drugs would be legalized.
That is apparently supposed to be a devastating question, but it doesn't strike me as particularly difficult. Our society has had a lot of experience with legal dangerous drugs, particularly alcohol and tobacco, and we can draw on that experience when we legalize marijuana, cocaine, and heroin—as we will, fairly soon, when more Americans come to understand the costs of prohibiting them.
Some critics of prohibition would legalize only "soft" drugs—just marijuana in many cases. That policy would not eliminate the tremendous problems that prohibition has created. As long as drugs that people very much want remain illegal, a black market will exist. If our goal is to rid our cities of crime and corruption, it would make more sense to legalize cocaine and heroin, while leaving marijuana illegal, than vice versa. The lesson of alcohol prohibition in the 1920s and the prohibition of other drugs today is that prohibition creates more problems than it solves. We should legalize all recreational drugs.
Then what? When we legalize drugs, we will likely apply the alcohol model. Drinking laws, of course, differ from state to state, and REASON readers don't have to be told how ludicrous some of those laws are. Even with decidedly little research, I have run across a variety of asinine policies: In New Hampshire, food must be purchased with a drink—$1.50 worth, to be exact, so every bar has a nice array of desserts and cheese plates that sell for $1.50—and a small pitcher of beer can't be served to one person. In Virginia, establishments that serve alcohol must earn a majority of their revenue from the sale of meals, and it's illegal to serve drinks to "known homosexuals." In some states, only private clubs—which may be joined on the spot for a token fee—can serve drinks. In other states, liquor is sold only in state stores. It is illegal to sell alcohol in Bourbon County, Kentucky.
But notwithstanding those absurdities (mostly the result of political logrolling between moralizers and profit-maximizing interest groups), there are a few essential features of U.S. alcohol policies that would surely be applied to marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. Those drugs would be sold only in specially licensed stores—perhaps in liquor stores, perhaps in a new kind of drugstore. Warning labels would be posted in the stores and on the packages. It would be illegal to sell drugs to minors, now defined as anyone under 21. It would be illegal to advertise drugs on television and possibly even in print. Committing a crime or driving under the influence of drugs would be illegal, as with alcohol.
It is quite possible that such a system would be less effective in attracting young people to drug use than the current system of schoolyard pushers offering free samples. Teenagers today can get liquor if they try, and we shouldn't assume that a minimum purchasing age would keep other drugs out of their hands. But we don't see liquor pushers peddling their wares on playgrounds. Getting the drug business out of our schoolyards and streets is an important benefit of legalization.
It is likely that drug use would initially increase. Prices would be much lower, and drugs would be more readily available to adults who prefer not to break the law. But those drugs would be safer—when's the last time you heard of a liquor store selling gin cut with formaldehyde?—and people would be able to regulate their intake more carefully.
In the long run, however, I foresee declining drug use and weaker drugs. Consider the divergent trends in legal and illegal drugs today. Illegal drugs keep getting stronger—crack, PCP, ecstasy and other designer drugs—as a result of what Richard Cowan, writing in National Review, has called the Iron Law of Prohibition: the more intense the law enforcement, the more potent the drugs, because there is more profit in producing and selling powerful, highly concentrated drugs. Such drugs as crack probably would not exist if we had had a legal drug market for the past decade.
In contrast, legal drugs are getting weaker—for example, low-tar cigarettes and wine coolers. About 40 million Americans have quit smoking since the Surgeon General's report in 1964, and sales of spirits are declining; beer and wine keep the alcohol industry stable. As Americans become more health-conscious, they are turning away from drugs. Drug education could do more to encourage this trend if it was separated from law enforcement.
At least half of the violent crime in major U.S. cities is a result of drug prohibition. Legalization would save Americans tens of billions of dollars, but more important, it would greatly increase the sense of safety in our most dangerous neighborhoods. It would take the astronomical profits out of the drug trade, and the Colombian cartel would collapse like a punctured balloon. Drugs would be sold by Fortune 500 companies and friendly corner merchants, not by Mafiosi and 16-year-olds with BMWs and Uzis. Legalization would put an end to the corruption that has engulfed so many Latin American countries and tainted the Miami police and U.S. soldiers in Central America.
Legalization would not solve all of America's drug problems, but it would make our cities safer, make drug use healthier, eliminate a major source of revenue for organized crime, reduce corruption here and abroad, and make honest work more attractive to inner-city youth—pretty good results for any reform.
David Boaz is vice president of the Washington-based Cato Institute.
Stop Taxing Non-Addicts
by Milton Friedman
Legalize all drugs. They could be sold through ordinary retail outlets—primarily, I would presume, drug stores. There should be no FDA or other controls on the drugs. (In fact, I'm in favor of abolishing the FDA for reasons I've set out elsewhere.) However, I believe there should be restrictions on sales to minors.
With respect to restrictions on advertising, I feel uneasy about either position. I shudder at the thought of a TV ad with a pretty woman saying, "My brand will give you a high such as you've never experienced." On the other hand, I have always been very hesitant about restrictions on freedom of advertising for general free speech reasons. But whatever my own hesitations, I have very little doubt that legalization would be impossible without substantial restrictions on advertising.
It's almost impossible to have a confident view about how legalization would affect patterns of usage. Some elements of legalization would tend to reduce the number of addicts, and some would tend to increase it. As to which would be dominant, I have no idea.
Currently, for example, it pays a pusher of drugs to make a capital investment in creating an addict. He gives somebody a couple of doses free to get him started, because once he creates an addict he has a captive market. Given that the drug is illegal, his customer is likely to stick to him. After legalization, on the other hand, it wouldn't pay anybody to create addicts. This undoubtedly would tend to reduce usage.
There's no doubt, however, that legalization would drastically reduce the market price. The actual cost of producing drugs, whether cocaine, marijuana, or whatnot, is very low. They sell for as much as they do now because of the costs of bribing the relevant officials, making it financially attractive for people to take a chance on getting killed or going to jail, etc. So reducing the costs of bringing drugs to market would result in lower prices, which would undoubtedly have some tendency to increase the quantity demanded. Then there are also different effects on supply, so it is almost impossible to say what the net result would be.
It may well be that there would be more addicts, and I would regret that result. I believe that drugs do an enormous amount of harm. But no law has ever been passed that had zero negative effects. Judging every law requires balancing negative and positive effects. In considering the case for legalization, it is important to make a sharp distinction between addicts who hurt themselves and a legal process (that is, prohibition) that leads to a much larger number of nonaddicts being hurt.
Legalizing drugs would reduce enormously the number of victims of drug use who are not addicts: people who are mugged, people who are corrupted, the reduction of law and order because of the corruption of law enforcement, and the allocation of a very large fraction of law enforcement resources to this one particular activity. There are millions of people who are not addicts who are being harmed by the present system—not to mention the harm to the domestic political systems of countries such as Colombia and Peru.
The costs of drug prohibition for non-addicts, such as the increased risk of getting mugged, are the equivalent of taxes: they are government-imposed costs. We're imposing right now these very heavy costs on nonaddicts in the mistaken belief that we are thereby helping addicts. That's not sensible.
It would not be sensible after legalization, either. So although addicts should then be treated the way every other citizen is treated—getting the medical treatment provided any other individual—they should not be given special treatment compared to victims of other medical problems. I do not believe it is appropriate to impose special taxes on nonaddicts in order to provide benefits to addicts.
It would be very desirable after legalization for private, voluntary organizations to form for the purpose of treating addicts. I do not believe this is an appropriate function of government any more than I believe health insurance is an appropriate function of government. On the other hand, if government has a welfare system or a negative income tax, that should be available to addicts as well as anybody else. We should not impose on addicts any greater stigma than we attach to other victims. Equal treatment and equal opportunity ought to be the hallmark.
As I wrote in my Newsweek column on drugs 16 years ago, I believe that adults—by this I mean people whom we regard as responsible, and as a practical matter this means people who are neither insane nor below a certain age—should be responsible for their own lives. I'm a libertarian—a limited government libertarian, not an anarchist libertarian. People's freedom to make their own decisions is my fundamental objective.
Milton Friedman, who received the 1976 Nobel Prize in economics, is the author of numerous books, including, with his wife, Rose, Capitalism and Freedom and Free to Choose. These remarks are adapted from a telephone interview.
by Norman E. Zinberg
At least in the first phase of legalization, use of now-illicit drugs would certainly increase. Also casualties probably would increase. Our society is not prepared for the legalization of cocaine and the opiates, because prohibition has prevented the development of social norms, sanctions, and rituals that could show people how to use these drugs in a controlled and pleasurable manner.
The first element in a coherent social policy on drugs should be sound education. Past attempts at "education" to fight drug abuse have failed. In fact, several studies have demonstrated that drug education usually has the effect of increasing use.
The common goal of all these educational efforts has been to prevent all illicit intoxicant use. To my knowledge, no educational program has attempted to separate use from abuse or to indicate how abuse might be avoided by means other than abstinence. These programs typically inculcate the attitude that those who use any drugs at all, and of course those who get into trouble—these programs are premised on the notion that it is only a matter of time before the first group becomes the second—are social deviants and destroyers of the moral fabric of society.
For occasional users, such programs increase their sense of having to hide their use and not to oppose the party line in public. Studies show that they are already aware of and concerned about controlling their use; certainly this sort of education does not cause them to abandon use. As for addicts who come from the already dispossessed minorities, such "education" is further proof that they cannot hope for understanding from the institutions of the cultural majority, especially the law and the media. They can only become further alienated.
An effective drug education policy would include a form of education for the person in trouble from drug abuse, but it would also be directed at the reigning cultural majority. The majority must hear about the terrible difficulty of struggling against addictions and must recognize that we may all be addicts. Some of us have chosen a less dangerous and licit drug, such as coffee or tea, while others, for all sorts of social and psychological reasons, have chosen a more deadly and addictive illicit one. Above all, the majority must learn to differentiate use from abuse and put their money and their humane values to work against the latter.
As the education of the majority proceeds, it would be worthwhile to make symbolic gestures to indicate that the majority wants to make sense of the issue, be humane, and recognize human rights, without opening the floodgates by adopting legalization. For example, in those states that have decriminalized (not legalized) the use of marijuana, such as Oregon and California, the patterns of use, including its current reduction, are the same as in those states that have not decriminalized use. Why not, then, enact a federal decriminalization statute that includes a provision for a careful study of the effects of this change in policy? It would not be a cheap project, but it would be cheaper than current law-enforcement prosecution for simple possession and use. In a decade there might be solid information that would make it easier for Mr. and Mrs. Citizen to decide what would be the best way to go.
Above all, we must increase treatment capacity, improve access to treatment, and train and pay superior personnel. One of the clearest signs of the hard-heartedness of our social institutions is their low investment in treatment. Although treatment is slow, is much more often maintenance than cure, and frequently fails, it is by any count enormously cost-effective. Access to treatment should be easier. Sterile needles should be given away with the fewest possible strings attached. Data from England and the Netherlands indicate that not only does providing needles not increase use or seem to condone drug use, but participating in a needle exchange program leads people who have made this first preliminary attempt to become engaged in the larger social system and eventually seek out treatment. The same would be true of the practice of supplying methadone on demand. Any procedure that engages the addicts and weans them away from their resentful isolation should be encouraged. And equally important, the public must be willing to support reasonable salaries and a high level of training for personnel manning such sensitive spots.
Norman E. Zinberg, M.D., is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School at The Cambridge Hospital and the author of Drug, Set, and Setting: The Basis for Controlled Intoxicant Use.
by Georgette Bennett
Our thinking about drugs is colored by panicky headlines that make it difficult to deal with this issue in a pragmatic way. Instead, our national hysteria roots us in approaches that, for nearly eight decades, have created a larger problem than the one they were intended to solve.
The main point of legalization is to take the high black-market profit out of drugs. By so doing, we will isolate the criminal by-products of drug abuse from the public health issue. Because most drug crimes are cost- and profit-related, legalization will greatly reduce the impact of drug use on crime. This will free up scarce resources to deal with what has become a massive public health issue, one made even more urgent by the advent of AIDS.
Legalization does not mean license. It means shifting from a system of criminal sanctions to one of administrative regulation with civil penalties. Nor does legalization mean societal approval of drug abuse. Therefore, in order to avoid sending the wrong message to youngsters, legalization must occur in tandem with a massive public education, treatment, and prevention campaign.
The legalization alternative has four distinct aspects: take the profit out of drugs; deal with the public health issue; define civil controls on drug abuse; identify those areas where criminal sanctions still apply. Based on the current debate, the decriminalized drug world of the future will look like this:
To take the profit out of drugs:
• Drug sales will be permitted only by government-licensed vendors.
• Vending will be restricted to pharmacies and clinics.
• All decriminalized drug products will be sold generically. Brand-name competition will be prohibited.
• The commercial middle person will be eliminated. The government will act as the middle person and distribute drug products to vendors.
• The federal government will negotiate drug purchases directly with foreign governments. Negotiations are to be conducted by the State Department.
• Foreign governments will be given economic incentives for controlling production and channeling distribution only through legitimate channels.
• Proceeds of drug sales will be taxed.
• Strict price controls will keep costs low.
• Drugs will be provided on demand to discourage the development of black markets.
• For impoverished addicts, free drugs will be provided at government clinics. Submission to treatment and reeducation programs will be mandatory.
To deal with the public health issue:
• There will be strict quality control and labelling requirements imposed on all drug products. Compliance will be monitored by the Food and Drug Administration.
• The majority of drug enforcement and interdiction dollars will be redirected to treatment and prevention facilities.
• Massive anti-drug advertising and public education campaigns will be developed by the Ad Council.
• All commercial advertising of drugs will be banned.
• Anti-drug education will be a mandatory part of all school curricula.
• All community centers servicing school drop-outs and impoverished populations will be required to provide anti-drug education.
• Minimum-age requirements will be established to parallel the drinking age.
• Outreach programs will be developed for underage offenders.
• Where drugs induce psychotic violent behavior, users will be treated through the mental health system and subject to involuntary commitments.
Civil controls on drug abuse are needed:
• Civil penalties for workplace drugs use—such as loss of job—will be established.
• Strong corporate anti-drug policies will be promulgated.
• First-line supervisors will be accountable for detection of substance abuse in the workplace.
• Bona fide job-related criteria will be developed for jobs in which drug use is prohibited on and off duty.
• Where bona fide job-related criteria can be established, noninvasive drug-testing procedures (such as analysis of brain waves to determine which drugs are involved) will be implemented. Drug-testing will be conducted only where reasonable suspicion or probable cause can be established.
Criminal sanctions will still apply in certain areas:
• Driving while drug-impaired.
• Circumventing regulations for legal sales of drugs.
• Selling drugs through unauthorized outlets, including by mail or wire.
• Skimming, tax evasion, and criminally negligent record keeping.
• Enforcement responsibility will be divided among the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the FBI.
Under legalization, we will still have a black market, but not anywhere near the magnitude of our present violent drug gangs and organized crime groups. Most black-marketeers will be small-time, street-level dealers who are easy to detect and arrest.
Petty corruption of law enforcement officials will continue. However, the incentives to corrupt public officials will be minimal due to the reduced profits in the drug trade. Systemic corruption and penetration of national governments will be eliminated. Most corruption will be isolated. It will be instigated by small-time black marketeers and will be focused on circumventing quality control and distribution regulations.
Under-age substance abuse will persist, but at reduced levels. Minimum-age requirements will omit the very group with the greatest abuse problem, thereby forcing this group underground. However, shrunken profits will reduce dealer incentives to push drugs in and around schools and on street corners. At the same time, massive public education campaigns will heighten the social disapproval of drugs. Peer pressure will discourage drug use.
Drug addiction will not increase. Unlike the end of Prohibition, when alcohol abuse skyrocketed, the trend toward reduced drug use will continue. This is because, contrary to alcohol in the early part of this century, drug use carries a strong social stigma that will be reinforced by massive public education campaigns.
A free society is based on the premise that human beings are rational and can be trusted to make informed choices. Just as it is with cigarettes, caffeine, cholesterol, alcohol, sugar, and all the other substances that we know are harmful to us, but which, nonetheless, remain legal, so it must be with drugs.
Georgette Bennett, the author of Crimewarps: The Future of Crime in America (Doubleday/Anchor, 1987), is a former professor of sociology at the City University of New York who has worked in an advisory capacity with the police department of New York City.
by Ron Paul
All drugs should be decriminalized. Drugs could be distributed by any adult to other adults. There should be no controls on production, supply, or purchase (for adults) because we know, through the observation of the market economy, that government intervention most often causes the opposite of the desired effect.
There's no proof that legalization leads to greater use. Certainly, users are more visible when use is legal. A significant point about legalization is that it ends criminal involvement in the profit-making aspect of drug selling and all violence associated with the use of drugs. The only victims of drugs would be people who voluntarily use them, not people who are robbed to support a drug habit. Since much drug violence is initiated between drug buyers and sellers in disagreements over deliveries, purity, or payoffs, decriminalization would give these producers and consumers access to the courts for settling their grievances. Also, there would be no pushers to give away drugs in the hopes of monopolizing the supply to a possible addict.
Social norms regarding drugs are established through the family, not government. The appropriate role of government in general is to protect citizens from aggression from other citizens and from foreign invaders. It is not to protect people from their own folly. The family, churches, schools (especially private schools), and private organizations are the most effective and even now the most successful dissuaders of drug use.
Rehabilitation of drug addicts should be provided through private organizations like the Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco, which has an 80 percent success rate and no government funding. This organization could offer even more help to addicts if drug treatment facilities were deregulated. (For example, state law prevents the center from treating minors.)
We can look at the decriminalization of alcohol as an example. Just as there is no violence associated with acquiring alcohol, crime associated with the acquisition and use of now illegal drugs would be practically eliminated.
At worst, some irresponsible individuals will always become addicted to certain drugs (although we cannot be certain that addiction would increase with decriminalization). Private charities such as church groups would be able to offer help to more drug users because addicts would not fear arrest. At best, people would act responsibly and not use drugs for recreation but use them only for medicinal purposes at the advice of a health care provider. No violence would be associated with drugs. Organized crime would be dealt a severe financial blow. Police and courts would catch and punish individuals guilty of aggressive acts, not spend their limited resources catching and punishing peaceful users, buyers, and sellers of drugs. As a philosophical plus, the principle of individual freedom and private property would never be compromised.
Ron Paul, M.D., is the Libertarian Party candidate for president and a former Republican congressman from Texas. He is the only presidential candidate who favors drug legalization.
by Ethan Nadelmann
Thinking about drug legalization serves two valuable purposes: it provides the best framework for analyzing what is wrong with our current criminal justice-oriented drug policies, and it offers what may well be the optimal approach for dealing with today's drug problem. The drug policy I envision is one in which the criminal sanction and criminal justice resources are redirected to the edges of drug policy, one in which alcohol and tobacco are taxed and regulated much more so than they are today, one in which most psychoactive substances are legally available at moderate cost to adults in government-licensed outlets, and one in which dramatically greater resources are devoted to making drug education and especially treatment widely available. It is also a policy that would result in a net benefit, between reduced criminal justice expenditures and tax revenues from legal substance sales, of tens of billions of dollars each year to public treasuries.
Drug legalization promises incredible benefits. The $10 billion spent this year by federal, state, and local criminal justice agencies for enforcement of the drug laws would be diverted to more productive purposes. Police, prosecutors, and judges would focus their resources and attentions on more serious crimes. Organized crime would lose about half of its revenues of tens of billions of dollars per year. Fewer criminal justice officials would succumb to corruption. Homicide rates would decline dramatically as government outlets seized the market from violent gun-toting drug dealers. Drug addicts would no longer have to steal the large sums needed to maintain an illicit cocaine or heroin addiction. Children in the ghettos would no longer be tempted into crime and drug abuse by the financial rewards offered by today's illicit drug business. Drug users and addicts would no longer have to fear that their supplies were adulterated with dangerous substances or were far more potent than expected. The result would be fewer overdose deaths, less transmission of AIDS by IV drug users, and generally improved living conditions for drug addicts.
The great risk of drug legalization, of course, is that far more people would become drug abusers. Many people assume that this would automatically be the case, indeed that this country would become, in Sen. Alfonse D'Amato's (R–N.Y.) words, "a nation of zombies." The evidence, however, suggests that an increased level of drug abuse is by no means a certainty and that Senator D'Amato's vision is entirely unwarranted. There is, for instance, little reason to suspect that the tens of millions of Americans who use neither alcohol nor tobacco will suddenly turn to other substances if they are legally available. There is also good reason to believe that most of the 100 million Americans who use alcohol responsibly will either refrain from using other substances or else use them in relatively responsible ways as well.
Predicting the nature and level of drug use and abuse under a legalization regime is so difficult in good part because simple economic projections do not suffice. It is almost impossible, for instance, to predict how the norms, patterns, and subcultures of drug use would change if the substances were legal.
Consider what happened in Holland after the Dutch, in 1976, decriminalized marijuana virtually to the point of legalizing it. A simple economic model would have predicted a significant increase in marijuana consumption, yet in fact use among youth declined quite dramatically during the following decade. The Dutch government claims, quite rightly, that it set out "to make marijuana boring" and succeeded. Similarly, one would have predicted an increase in marijuana consumption in the dozen U.S. states that decriminalized possession of the substance during the 1970s. In fact, marijuana consumption there has declined at the same rate as in states that retained criminal sanctions against marijuana.
It is important to realize that legalization does not have to mean following in the same stupid footsteps traced by our alcohol and tobacco policies. We do not have to make potentially dangerous substances available in vending machines at seven cents a piece in packets of 20. Nor do we have to subsidize growers or provide the substances at subsidized rates to our military personnel. Just as we can tax alcohol and tobacco far more heavily than we currently do, and impose even greater restrictions on public use, so we can be quite restrictive even in making the illicit substances legally available. Criminalizing drugs may make them less available to those not willing to search hard for them, but it also effectively eliminates the capacity of government to control the production, sale, and use of those drugs that are available.
Whether this country ultimately opts for some greater degree of drug legalization or imposes even stricter criminal penalties, we will continue to confront the problem of drug abuse. It is, of course, important to overturn the official fiction that all use of illicit drugs is a form of drug abuse. But it is also important to make drug treatment programs available to all who request them. The current range of options is limited by the ideological and moral myopia of political leaders who care less for the lives of drug-addicted Americans than for the "message" they fear is delivered by some drug treatment options. The first objective of any treatment program must be to get the drug abuser or addict out of the underground, street drug market and to reduce the need for him or her to steal from or otherwise harm others. The second objective must be to enable the drug abuser or addict to improve the overall quality of his life and health. Converting someone into a "drug-free" human being, however well-intended, must be subsidiary to these first two objectives.
Only when calm and reasoned analysis replaces the highly emotional rhetoric of our current drug policies will we be able to implement more effective and humane drug policies.
Ethan Nadelmann is an assistant professor of politics and public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. His article "The Case for Legalization" appeared in the summer issue of The Public Interest.
No Special Treatment
by Ernest van den Haag
Except for highly poisonous drugs and those which demonstrably overstimulate so as to lead to crime, I favor the decriminalization of all drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. They should be sold only to adults, in liquor or drug stores, without prescription. They should be taxed as much as alcohol, and the revenue could finance more and better educational efforts about drugs and alcohol.
Upon decriminalization, drugs might become cheaper and more available. Consumption probably would increase. Yet it is unlikely that the number of addicts would ever rival the number of alcoholics.
Neither alcoholics nor the addicts, however, should be regarded as handicapped, or afflicted by a disease, and entitled to welfare and other services. Detoxification centers should be available as well as the kind of support groups that help alcoholics. But neither is an entitlement. The sale of drugs should be decriminalized only if we are willing to consider taking them a voluntary act. I believe it is. If we regard taking drugs as a disease, we justify criminalizing sales. The customer is innocent (he is just sick), the seller guilty (he makes the customer sick).
Legalization, even though it will lead to some increase of consumption, would probably reduce the crime rate to some degree. Obviously, illegal sellers would disappear and no longer go to prison. Further, people would less often commit crimes to be able to buy drugs, since the drugs would become much cheaper.
There are well-known philosophical arguments in favor of decriminalization. Most of these arguments rest on an anti-paternalistic basis, affirming the right of competent people to harm themselves. I'd grant that right. However, this argument becomes rather irrelevant when drugs reduce the consumer's willingness, or ability, to be law-abiding and thus imperil third persons. Some drugs certainly do.
Despite this risk, however, I favor decriminalization mainly because criminalization is a morally and materially expensive failure. It is quite ineffective, drives people to crime, corrupts law enforcement, and costs far more than it could possibly be worth, even if one assumes that all drugs are bad for anyone.
We could probably reduce consumption of drugs greatly if we punished not sellers but buyers. It would dry up the market. And, after all, the buyers are responsible. Sellers merely make available what the consumers want (and without much advertising). Severe punishment of buyers would scare most of them away and deter most future addicts. But no American court would impose a severe prison sentence—nothing else would work—on young first offenders. In effect it is politically impossible to punish consumers to the extent necessary to deter consumption. On the other hand, punishing dealers is ineffective: the profits to be made are too high.
Decriminalization—the rational alternative—is politically just as impossible. Drugs do not have a tradition of moderate social use, as alcohol does. They are regarded as a moral evil, or an illness. Politicians will find it more profitable to thunder against them and to propose high penalties for dealers (not many votes lost there) than to decriminalize sale or to punish consumers.
We are at an impasse. Either decriminalization, or severe punishment of users, could get us out of it. But neither is likely in the foreseeable future. We will muddle on. The stalemate will continue. Politics can be rationally analyzed, but the subject itself is not rational.
Ernest van den Haag retired this year as John M. Olin Professor of Jurisprudence and Public Policy at Fordham University.
by Charles Paul Freund
Legalize everything. It's the only way to control drug use. As things stand now, many illicit drugs are being consumed within outlaw subcultures. This virtually assures the misuse and abuse of drugs. If these drugs were legal, if they were allowed their place in the rhythm of social and communal activity, the same social and cultural strictures that govern other forms of pleasure would govern drug use.
That this essential point about how cultures operate has been lost—that it is not even part of the public dialogue about drugs—is evidence not merely of opportunistic political fatuousness; it is, in historical terms, ludicrous. American history—leave everyone else's history aside—is crowded with examples of outlaw subcultures forming around illegal pleasures, and with the futility of waving laws at them. It is cultural standards that shape behavior, especially pleasurable behavior. Laws are effective to the degree that they are consistent with those standards; it doesn't work the other way around.
Taboos and horror stories—that marijuana, for example, will turn you into a howling addict—are of course forms of cultural control as well. But this former structure of control is, to put it mildly, no longer effective. Millions of middle-class Americans have been violating the drug taboos for years and continue to do so. However, because drug laws still lend support to a cultural standard that no longer exists, drug takers must step outside the mainstream and into an outlaw culture. This is the worst of all worlds, because what it means is no control at all. Drugs are available, but the opportunity to learn about drugs, about one's reactions to them, and about their rational control is not available. The result is legal, medical, and cultural chaos.
The obvious parallel is alcohol. Because it is a source of pleasure, alcohol is suspect. But because it is tolerated—Americans discovered they had no choice in the matter—it is subject to mainstream cultural controls. The reason that people generally confine their drinking to evenings, weekends, and ritual events transcends the merely practical. Alcohol is socialized; people have learned the rules as part of an acculturation process.
Because alcohol is subject to such constraints, children have a chance to learn about alcohol; even their sometimes destructive experiments with drinking are more or less tolerated. The content and quality of alcohol is not a matter of chance, as it was during Prohibition, and people are unlikely to drink wood alcohol or other poisons as they did when drinking was an outlaw subculture. Those persons with alcohol-related problems can be easily identified and at least offered help. In fact, because drinking is thoroughly socialized, the mainstream can always tighten control, as evidenced by the ongoing and successful pressure against drinking and driving. There are parallel benefits in allowing drugs to be socialized.
The use of some drugs—marijuana, for example—is by now so widespread that shadow mainstream subcultures exist to govern their use. The sorting-out process involving catastrophically destructive and lethal drugs, however, continues to claim victims because that process is taking place underground. The mainstream culture has locked itself out of access to a subculture whose actions are having an important impact on it, from productivity to health to venal corruption.
Under such circumstances, mainstreams have only two choices. One is Zero Tolerance—real Zero Tolerance—in which the adherents of a subculture are imprisoned, liquidated, or forcibly reeducated. The other is absorption. In the case of drugs, this will be a painful and difficult process, but it would at least take into account the realities of social behavior.
At least, those are the choices if a mainstream chooses to act; it can always choose merely to ignore the situation, indulging itself in occasional flurries of pseudo-concern, chest-beating, garment-rending, and money-wasting. That has been our political culture's pattern since the arrival of a middle-class drug subculture, and it threatens to remain that way.
Charles Paul Freund is a columnist for The New Republic.
The Worst Case
by Arnold S. Trebach
Assume for the moment the worst-case scenario: we legalize all drugs as of January 1, 1989 (to the utter horror of incoming President Dukakis), and by the end of that year there are another million addicts to hard drugs. This would be a terrible event. If it really occurred, we would treat those new addicts as we now treat many of the 50 million or so tobacco addicts, especially those who have come down with cancer: as sick people who need compassion and health care. We would be saving billions in funds now devoted to police, courts, and prisons that could be spent on a vast network of health facilities for all people in trouble with any of the drugs, from tobacco to alcohol to heroin.
Even under that worst-case scenario, there might well be a net increase in the health and safety of all Americans. Multitudes would cease to be crime victims, either murdered, mugged, burgled, or robbed. Thousands of police would no longer be hurt in the drug war.
Everything we know about the dynamics of drug use suggests that the real scenario will be even better. The worst-case analysis takes a mean, twisted view of our brother and sister citizens. I challenge any drug warrior to provide evidence that millions of Americans will rush down to the corner liquor store and fill up their shopping carts with heroin and cocaine because they are now sold there. Almost all citizens will be unattracted, bored, or scared.
If we combine legalization with a believable public education program warning of the real dangers of the currently legal drugs, as Surgeon General C. Everett Koop has started to do with tobacco, it is possible that millions of Americans each year would stop using those killer drugs, or significantly reduce their use.
The evidence suggests, therefore, that if we legalize the currently illegal drugs, teach temperance and moderation regarding all drugs, and treat addicts and cancer patients alike with compassion and sound health care, the whole topic will be reduced to a mid-level and, hopefully, boring issue of national health policy.
Arnold Trebach is president of the Drug Policy Foundation and a professor of justice at American University. He is the author of The Great Drug War (Macmillan, 1987).