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.
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.
Why hasn’t our country’s “war on drugs,” now entering its fourth (or is it fifth?) decade, caused a diminishing of demand? The answer is simple: as currently prosecuted the “war” will never be won…because it can’t be.
The U.S. is the largest capitalist economy in the world (at least for another decade or so), and drugs are the purest form of free-market capitalism in the world. Illicit drugs respect no laws, no borders, and no treaties. Drugs respond only to the first, immutable, and supreme law of capitalism—supply and demand.
If the Drug Enforcement Administration was to ever win this “war,” it would make a baldfaced lie out of the very bedrock principle our economic system is based on, not to mention the severe depression such a “victory” would trigger. Too many foot soldiers make a handsome living off of propagating this “war.”
Portugal, which in 2001 became the first European country to officially abolish all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.
At the recommendation of a national commission charged with addressing Portugal’s drug problem, jail time was replaced with the offer of therapy. The argument was that the fear of prison drives addicts underground and that incarceration is more expensive than treatment — so why not give drug addicts health services instead? Under Portugal’s new regime, people found guilty of possessing small amounts of drugs are sent to a panel consisting of a psychologist, social worker and legal adviser for appropriate treatment (which may be refused without criminal punishment), instead of jail.
The question is, does the new policy work? At the time, critics in the poor, socially conservative and largely Catholic nation said decriminalizing drug possession would open the country to “drug tourists” and exacerbate Portugal’s drug problem; the country had some of the highest levels of hard-drug use in Europe. But the recently released results of a report commissioned by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, suggest otherwise.
The paper, published by Cato in April, found that in the five years after personal possession was decriminalized, illegal drug use among teens in Portugal declined and rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing of dirty needles dropped, while the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled.
“Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success,” says Glenn Greenwald, an attorney, author and fluent Portuguese speaker, who conducted the research. “It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does.”
Compared to the European Union and the U.S., Portugal’s drug use numbers are impressive. Following decriminalization, Portugal had the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the E.U.: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.
The Cato paper reports that between 2001 and 2006 in Portugal, rates of lifetime use of any illegal drug among seventh through ninth graders fell from 14.1% to 10.6%; drug use in older teens also declined. Lifetime heroin use among 16-to-18-year-olds fell from 2.5% to 1.8% (although there was a slight increase in marijuana use in that age group). New HIV infections in drug users fell by 17% between 1999 and 2003, and deaths related to heroin and similar drugs were cut by more than half.
Drug warriors often contend that drug use would skyrocket if we were to legalize or decriminalize drugs in the United States. Fortunately, we have a real-world example of the actual effects of ending the violent, expensive War on Drugs and replacing it with a system of treatment for problem users and addicts.
Many of these innovative treatment procedures would not have emerged if addicts had continued to be arrested and locked up rather than treated by medical experts and psychologists. Currently 40,000 people in Portugal are being treated for drug abuse. This is a far cheaper, far more humane way to tackle the problem. Rather than locking up 100,000 criminals, the Portuguese are working to cure 40,000 patients and fine-tuning a whole new canon of drug treatment knowledge at the same time.
None of this is possible when waging a war.
How do proponents of the war on drugs explain Portugal’s success? Is the drastic decline in drug use following legalization a coincidence? Is Portugal some freakish, backwards country where anything can happen? Is drug policy in one country somehow not applicable anywhere else?
As far as I’m concerned, the ball is in the court of drug war supporters. They must justify skyrocketing incarceration rates, plateauing drug usage rates, murderous drug lords making billions of dollars, and the massive breach of civil liberties.
It’s time to start placing the burden of proof on the other side. Given the mountains of evidence and data that now exist on drugs and drug laws, the pro-drug-war position is no longer rational or morally defensible. Game on, DEA.