Legalize drugs, advocates say, and you'll, decrease drug use, virtually empty our prisons, end the violence between cartels in Mexico and move toward a more humane society in which abuse is treated as an illness, not a crime.
You see, they further instruct us, the so-called war on drugs has won nary a battle, but is essentially a hugely expensive replay of Prohibition, which did nothing to lessen alcohol consumption. What we're talking about here is liberty. Drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, heroine and methamphetamines are no worse than cigarettes or whiskey and the only ones hurt by their consumption are the adults who decide to use them.
It's on the basis of such fictions that some well-meaning people - including some of my libertarian friends - are trying to march our society off a cliff. They really ought to take a close, hard look at the facts and some well-argued, contrary analyses that come to us not just from stubborn right-wingers, but from research by think tanks, governmental agencies and highly regarded social scientists.
One such scientist is James Q. Wilson of Boston College, who makes the common-sense case that legalization will increase drug use because it will reduce the price of drugs, give increased assurance of their quality and make them easier to obtain.
In the Netherlands, the government decided to permit legal cannabis shops, and soon enough you had twice as many people aged 18 to 20 using the drug, says one report. We once had legal opiate and cocaine drugs in the country, mostly sold as medications in the late 19th century to cure what ailed you, varied sources say. The drugs ailed us into high rates of debilitating addiction that began to lessen dramatically with the passage of inhibiting laws.
With more drug use, Wilson says, will come more people on welfare, more traffic deaths and more ruined marriages. That's just the beginning. Because they so decisively unravel our self-control, drugs can render us more likely to do all kinds of things we would not do if we were straight and sober. Half of all those arrested for committing violent crimes were under the influence of drugs, says John Walters, former director of the Office of National Drug Policy, in a Wall Street Journal piece. He then gives us this startling statistic: 80 percent of all child abuse cases are drug-related. So this is the great libertarian cause - increase child abuse in America?
The obvious fact is that use of illegal drugs does more than harm the user, but the user does in fact get harmed. Cocaine is reportedly something like seven times as addictive as alcohol, and even marijuana - - probably the least dangerous of these drugs - can cause cancer, according to a study published in 1998. It's true that drinking and smoking are hugely damaging themselves, but that's hardly an argument for more people than now to harm themselves with these drugs.
More treatment than incarceration of drug abusers makes sense, but you don't get there through setting up legal methamphetamine stores for people to introduce their neighbors to health wreckage and possibly death. Walters and others observe that courts are increasingly getting users in rehabilitation programs. And, it has been pointed out, users make up a relatively small percentage of those in federal prisons for drug-related crimes.
Despite the brouhaha to the contrary, Walters notes that anti-drug efforts have significantly decreased usage and addiction, just a Prohibition, for all its failures, did lead to less alcohol consumption, as another writer says. Decriminalizing marijuana, as some states have done, may turn out to be workable, but commercializing it? Surely not.
And what about Mexico? Walters observes that ending Prohibition did not end organized crime and that Mexico's gangs have other markets besides the one in the United States. We don't need to worsen our own state of affairs to help the Mexicans.
Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.
November 9, 2009