It’s not uncommon to hear Americans of a more libertarian bent argue that we should give up on the failed “war on drugs” and just legalize the stuff like we did after alcohol prohibition proved disastrous. Even some Christians maintain that while they personally wouldn’t use harmful narcotics, it’s time we get government out of all this regulation, seize the tax revenue, and legalize drugs.
John P. Walters, former “Drug Czar” during the George W. Bush administration, disagrees and makes a good case that legalizing drugs is dumber than you think. In this short article, Walters counters three bad arguments made in favor of drug legalization.
First, they contend, “the drug war has failed”—despite years of effort we have been unable to reduce the drug problem. Actually, as imperfect as surveys may be, they present overwhelming evidence that the drug problem is growing smaller and has fallen in response to known, effective measures. Americans use illegal drugs at substantially lower rates than when systematic measurement began in 1979—down almost 40 percent. Marijuana use is down by almost half since its peak in the late 1970s, and cocaine use is down by 80 percent since its peak in the mid-1980s. Serious challenges with crack, meth, and prescription drug abuse have not changed the broad overall trend: Drug use has declined for the last 40 years, as has drug crime.
The decades of decline coincide with tougher laws, popular disapproval of drug use, and powerful demand reduction measures such as drug treatment in the criminal justice system and drug testing. The drop also tracks successful attacks on supply—as in the reduction of cocaine production in Colombia and the successful attack on meth production in the United States. Compared with most areas of public policy, drug control measures are quite effective when properly designed and sustained.
That’s the first bad argument: the drug war hasn’t worked. The second bad argument has to do with prisons.
The second false argument for legalization is that drug laws have filled our prisons with low-level, non-violent offenders. The prison population has increased substantially over the past 30 years, but the population on probation is much larger and has grown almost as fast. The portion of the prison population associated with drug offenses has been declining, not growing. The number of diversion programs for substance abusers who commit crimes has grown to such an extent that the criminal justice system is now the single largest reason Americans enter drug treatment.
Despite constant misrepresentation of who is in prison and why, the criminal justice system has steadily and effectively focused on violent and repeat offenders. The unfortunate fact is that there are too many people in prison because there are too many criminals. With the rare exceptions that can be expected from human institutions, the criminal justice system is not convicting the innocent.
Third, Walters dissects the argument that violent drug cartels would be weakened or eliminate if drugs were legal.
Many factors have driven this misguided argument. First, while President Álvaro Uribe in Colombia and President Felipe Calderón in Mexico demonstrated brave and consequential leadership against crime and terror, such leadership is rare. For both the less competent and the corrupt, the classic response in politics is to blame someone else for your failure.
The real challenge is to establish the rule of law in places that have weak, corrupt, or utterly inadequate institutions of justice. Yes, the cartels and violent gangs gain money from the drug trade, but they engage in the full range of criminal activities—murder for hire, human trafficking, bank robbery, protection rackets, car theft, and kidnapping, among others. They seek to control areas and rule with organized criminal force. This is not a new phenomenon, and legalizing drugs will not stop it. In fact, U.S. drug laws are a powerful means of working with foreign partners to attack violent groups and bring their leaders to justice.
And finally, Walters argues that legalization removes a necessary stigma that society should place on such destructive behavior.
Irresponsible talk of legalization weakens public resolve against use and addiction. It attacks the moral clarity that supports responsible behavior and the strength of key institutions. Talk of legalization today has a real cost to our families and families in other places. The best remedy would be some thoughtful reflection on the drug problem and what we say about it.
I quoted half of the article, but don’t forget to read the whole thing.