Heroin Addicts for the Drug War


The LAPD officer who writes under the pseudonym "Jack Dunphy" has a wrap-up of The Wire at Pajamas Media that concludes with a stirring defense of the drug war. It goes like this:

Some addicts can and do clean up, but will legalization make honest citizens out of drug dealers willing to kill over control of a street corner?

The argument for drug legalization is a rational one, but it is not one that I, after more than twenty years as a cop in Los Angeles, can endorse. Watching Bubbles struggle with his demons over these last five years, I was often reminded of a heroin addict I arrested years ago. As I was about to close the cell door on him, I asked him if he thought heroin should be legalized.

"No way," he said.

I asked him why not.

"If you legalize it," he said, "pretty soon everybody will be like me."

This is what drug warrior arguments have come to. Cheap appeals to emotion that rest on the authority of a heroin addict.

Let's start with the line about "dealers willing to kill over a street corner." In fact, legalization would take care of that problem, because when a product is legal, "turf wars" are better known as "market share." That is, there are legitimate ways of expanding your business. You innovate. You offer a better product (like, say, one that doesn't kill people). And there are legitimate ways of handling bad business associates. You sue them. Or you call the police. You don't kill them. I haven't read about a Michelob transaction gone wrong in a long, long time.

As for Dunphy's strange appeal to a junkie's authority, there are several problems with the "if you legalize drugs, everyone will become an addict" argument. Among them:

1) It assumes that prohibition is actually preventing access to illegal drugs in any meaningful way today. It isn't. I could have a bag of marijuana in my hands in about five minutes. As fast or faster than I could get a sandwich. It would probably take me 20 minutes to a half hour hunt down a small bag of heroin, but it wouldn't be difficult. And I could get either without any real fear of arrest. And I'm not a drug user. If I had actual connections, it'd be even easier. Some survey data shows high school kids can get marijuana as easily or easier than they can get alcohol.

2) It wrongly assumes that the all of the problems we associate with drugs–the bloody turf wars, the presence of particularly potent drugs like meth, the lengths to which dealers will go to get their premium, etc.–are the product of the drugs themselves, and not the product of them being prohibited. This chart helps slay that argument.

3) It assumes that the laws against using and distributing drugs are the only thing preventing a huge portion of the population from trying them, and becoming addicted to them. Legalization may indeed increase the use of currently banned drugs. But I have my doubts about a massive increase in addicts. The social stigma would still be there, as it is with alcoholism. Perhaps more people would experiment. But it isn't clear that that's a bad thing. Use is not abuse, no matter what ONDCP says in its press releases. And the vast majority of drug users—even "hard" drug users—don't turn into addicts.

Certainly, the overwhelming majority of people who currently abstain from drug use solely due to drugs being illegal are unlikely to become violent addicts should those drugs be legalized, robbing and killing at will to maintain a fix. To the extent that there would be increases in experimentation, the drugs people would be experimenting with would be safer. At minimum they'd be regulated by market forces, and more likely, heavily regulated by government. Would excessive regulation lead to a violent black market in unregulated drugs? I doubt it. Is there a violent black market in unregulated alcohol? Tobacco? There are limited black markets, yes. But they aren't nearly the problem the black markets for cocaine, heroin, and the like are.

4) It rests on the absurd assumption that it's appropriate and logical to throw people in jail in order to protect them from becoming addicts.

For an alternate take on the drug war from a former LAPD cop, see my interview with David Doddridge.