In Drug War Crimes: The Consequences of Prohibition, libertarian author Jeffrey Miron argues, among other things, that:
A) Drug prohibition cannot be proven to substantially reduce drug use at the state or federal level.
B) Drug prohibition can be proven to substantially increase crimes rates, especially when drug laws are aggressively enforced. (Interestingly, Miron argues that homicide rates in the US could be reduced by as much as 25 to 75 percent if drugs were legalized.)
C) We should not try, even if drugs were legalized, to reduce drug consumption because the costs would likely outweigh the benefits.
It is this third argument that I disagree with and it highlights the distinction between liberal and libertarian drug legalization objectives. Whereas libertarians might argue that the federal government does not have the authority to ban a product without a Constitutional amendment and that such an amendment would violate our civil liberties anyway, liberals might argue for a proactive government policy which aims to treat addicts and impose restrictions to reduce but not outlaw consumption of addictive and potentially lethal drugs.
What Miron notably excludes (with the exception of a sentence or two) from his book is an analysis of the dangers, or lack thereof, of various illegal substances. It matters, for instance, that marijuana, MDMA, LSD, and magic mushrooms are non-addictive, non-lethal drugs whereas cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin are. This distinction is important because both the treatments and restrictions required for these drugs in a legalized system would differ substantially. Miron does not bother analyzing the risks of specific drugs because he believes the government should never intervene with an individual’s drug use, period. Should drugs be legalized, the author opposes increased taxes on drugs (he refers to these as “sin taxes”) and restrictions on advertising for drugs. He is also highly skeptical of drug-abuse treatment programs. By using the all-encompassing term “drugs” and by neglecting to address the vast differences between them, Miron just starts applying his libertarian ideology to every circumstance and concludes that the government should legalize and then step back and let the market take care of everything.
Given heroin’s well-understood dangers, it should clearly be a policy objective to reduce heroin use, but alas, Miron argues that we should not even try to do this. To further his argument, he employs the typical libertarian tactic of evading the issue and citing the absurdity of some nonsensical regulation: “No one attempts to legislate against loud humming on the sidewalk; the negative externalities, while present, are small compared to the costs of attempting to stop them.”
Of course, terrifying activities such as public humming have nothing to do with the general benefit society would receive from being populated with less heroin addicts. Heroin addicts require treatment, which costs the public money, and they are more inclined to commit crimes because their addiction makes them more likely to steal money to buy more heroin. Having heroin addicts lingering about is also a detriment to a neighborhood’s standard of living. And heaven forbid I sound like some weeping socialist, but I think we should care about our fellow citizens and desire to see them free of serious drug addictions. The fact that the dangers and likelihood of addiction to heroin are frequently overstated, as Miron repeatedly points out, does not elude the fact that even in a legalized system, some heroin users will become addicted and these addicts need an organized, well-financed, and effective treatment system. One objective of this treatment system would of course be to decrease heroin use.
Nonetheless, at least two-thirds of the book is packed with insightful, convincing, and sometimes surprising arguments for legalization. As Miron correctly summarizes, “Prohibition is costly….Prohibition increases violent and non-violent crime, fosters corruption, and diminishes respect for the law. Prohibition reduces the health and welfare of drug users, subjecting millions whose only crime is drug possession to the risk of arrest and incarceration. Prohibition destroys civil liberties, distorts criminal justice incentives, and inflames racial hostility. Prohibition transfers billions of dollars each year to domestic criminals and enriches foreign revolutionaries who foment terrorism.” Indeed.
Nuanced policy squabbles aside, Miron’s book is crucial to understanding what is so terribly wrong about our current drug laws. In my opinion (and I think probably Miron’s as well), we should scrap the DARE program and hand out this book to students instead.