George Will: Drug Prohibition Is an Awful Flop. We Like It.


In a new column, George Will concedes that seeking altered states of consciousness is "natural," that the distinctions drawn by our drugs laws are not based on the relative hazards posed by these substances, that efforts to suppress the supply of drugs are futile, and that prohibition causes "rampant criminality," "disrespect for law," and "mayhem in Mexico," among other bad consequences. But he worries that legalization would lead to a big increase in drug addiction and the problems associated with it:

Suppose cocaine or heroin were legalized and marketed as cigarettes and alcohol are. And suppose the level of addiction were to replicate the 7 percent of adults suffering from alcohol abuse or dependency. That would be a public health disaster. As the late James Q. Wilson said, nicotine shortens life, cocaine debases it….

Legalization would mean drugs of reliable quality would be conveniently available from clean stores for customers not risking the stigma of breaking the law in furtive transactions with unsavory people. So there is no reason to think today's levels of addiction are anywhere near the levels that would be reached under legalization.

Since Will begins the column by implicitly conceding that alcohol is morally indistinguishable from illegal drugs, it is disappointing that he leans on Wilson's comment about nicotine vs. cocaine, which is frequently cited by prohibitionists even though it is essentially meaningless. Sometimes cocaine debases life; more often (judgng from, among other things, the government's own survey data), cocaine enhances life, in the sense that it provides pleasure without causing serious problems. It is telling that Wilson picked nicotine for his comparison, since he never could have gotten away with a similarly glib claim about alcohol. Does alcohol debase life? Again, sometimes yes, but typically no. This observation tells us nothing about the proper legal status of either drug.

Contrary to Will's assertion, there are several reasons to believe that the sum total of drug addiction problems would not be much bigger, and might be smaller, if prohibition were repealed:

1) There is a ceiling to the demand for intoxication, and people may use one drug instead of another, rather than in addition to it. To the extent that newly legal marijuana replaces alcohol, for example, people will be less apt to harm themselves or others. The health risks associated with marijuana are in many ways less serious than the health risks associated with alcohol, and there is evidence that the substitution of marijuana for alcohol reduces traffic fatalities.

2) It seems likely that the people most prone to addiction are the ones who are least deterred by the barriers that prohibition erects. Assuming that's true, the addiction rate for a given drug may well be lower after legalization. There still might be an increase in the total number of addicts, but not as big an increase as you would expect based on current rates.

3) The problems associated with addiction are exacerbated by prohibition, which drives prices up, makes drug quality and purity unpredictable, spreads disease by encouraging needle sharing, impedes information about harm reduction, stigmatizes users, entangles them in the criminal justice system, and exposes them to the risk of black-market violence. For all these reasons, a legal addiction is less of a problem than an illegal one. When Will says "legalization would mean drugs of reliable quality would be conveniently available from clean stores for customers not risking the stigma of breaking the law in furtive transactions with unsavory people," he seems to think that's a bad thing. It's not.

It is important to separate addiction—a hard-to-break attachment—from its consequences. Will and Wilson both assert that nicotine kills smokers, for example, when in fact it is smoke that kills smokers. Nicotine itself is safe enough that the FDA has approved it, in various forms, as a substitute for cigarettes. Nonpharmaceutical alternatives such as snus and electronic cigarettes also are much less hazardous, for the same reason: People can consume them without inhaling combustion products. A pack-a-day cigarette smoker who switches to nicotine gum or e-cigarettes may still be addicted to nicotine, but this addiction is now a much smaller problem. Likewise, people can use pharmaceutical-quality opiates for many years without suffering serious health problems, provided they follow sanitary injection practices and do not mix depressants. In addition to eliminating the drug hazards created by prohibition, legalization would enable manufacturers to compete based on safety, offering products that minimize risk while delivering the effects customers want.

Will's addiction concerns seem to be focused on cocaine and heroin. But marijuana is far and away the most popular illegal drug, and the one that is most likely to win widespread acceptance in a legal market. When he was challenged to demonstrate his limited-government principles by supporting marijuana legalization during a televised debate last December, Will said, "I need to know more about whether it's a gateway to other drugs." (He could start here.) Will clearly has been reading up on the subject since then, and one of the sources he cites is UCLA criminologist Mark Kleiman, who favors legalizing marijuana (albeit under a ration-card system). Does Will agree with Kleiman? He promises that "a subsequent column will suggest a more economic approach to the 'natural' problem of drugs," so maybe we'll find out.

One thing that frustrates me about Will's argument is that, like most conservatives (including conservative critics of the war on drugs), he takes a purely utilitarian approach, giving no consideration to the fundamental injustice of using violence to stop people from doing things that might harm them. During that December debate, Will said, "When does X trump personal liberty? Almost never….I don't want to make safety parallel with, equal to, let alone trump personal liberty." If so, why does he let safety trump liberty when it comes to drugs?