The appeal of legalization is clear. At a stroke, it would wipe out most problems of the black market by depriving gun-wielding thugs of their competitive advantage. But for it to work, it would have to include not just the possession of drugs but their production as well—and not just of marijuana but of substances that really are very dangerous: cocaine, crack, heroin and methamphetamine.
Legalizing possession and production would eliminate many of the problems related to drug dealing, but it would certainly worsen the problem of drug abuse. We could abolish the illicit market in cocaine, as we abolished the illicit market in alcohol, but does anyone consider our current alcohol policies a success? In the U.S., alcohol kills more people than all of the illicit drugs combined (85,000 deaths versus 17,000 in 2000, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association). Alcohol also has far more addicted users.
Any form of legal availability that could actually displace the illicit markets in cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine would make those drugs far cheaper and more available. If these “hard” drugs were sold on more or less the same terms as alcohol, there is every reason to think that free enterprise would work its magic of expanding the customer base, and specifically the number of problem users, producing an alcohol-like toll in disease, accident and crime.
Portugal’s decade-long experiment with legalization isn’t mentioned in this article so I have to assume the authors thought the subject irrelevant to their argument (perhaps because Portugal’s success disproves their assertion that legalization must increase drug abuse).
It should go without saying that legalization comes with strings attached, specifically that all substances would be taxed, restricted, and regulated and that money currently spent on incarceration and enforcement of drug laws would instead be used to finance effective rehabilitation programs and clinics. This should go without saying because as far as I know, virtually all legalization advocates, from conservatives to progressives to libertarians, all support a shift from treating drugs as a criminal issue to treating it as a health issue.
The alcohol comparison is an interesting one but there are some major differences between alcohol use and drug use. For one thing, alcohol use is glorified in our culture whereas heroin use or meth use is not. Users of hard drugs such as heroin, crack, and meth tend to be poor people who are using drugs to escape their misery. Since the root of hard drug use tends to be the result of poverty, poor education, and a lack of proper health care, all of these topics need to be addressed if we are to effectively combat drug addiction. It should also be mentioned that addicts report that the greatest hindrance to seeking help with their addiction is their fear of getting arrested. Eliminate this fear and more addicts will seek treatment.
I sound like a broken record, but Portugal is doing precisely what I and other legalization advocates are calling for and this policy has proven incredibly successful over a 10 year period.