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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.

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60 thoughts on “Just Say “No” to Legalizing Drugs”

  1. Enl says:

    Kevin, I would like an apology for the 2 minutes of my life lost to reading this.

  2. Meggie says:

    I am a “ridiculous libertarian” and married to a pastor at a gospel centered church. I, too, fundamentally disagreed with this article. Being a libertarian doesn’t mean that you do not think critically or wrestle over the tough issues. We live in one of the most liberal states in the union. This means that, in our fellowship, we are having to think through things like foster parenting (is it okay to lie on an evaluation that we will support our child in homosexuality if nthe truth means being denied as fister parents?), how far to preach sin from the pulpit without losing tax exempt status or facing prosecution for hate crimes, etc. While I don’t fundamentally disagree with many laws that are essentially protecting us from ourselves (drugs, seatbelts, etc.) I see these laws getting closer and closer to legislation in direct opposition to the Christian faith. So, I think it is a gross oversimplification to state we are “dumber than you think” for being libertarians. Rather, many are clinging desperately to the freedoms we hold that allow us to live out our Christian faith, even as we see a government rapidly extending into the very religious freedom we hold dear.

  3. Rob says:

    Now here’s an article worth everyone’s time:

    “Just Say No to Pious Sounding Big Government”

  4. Cliff Warner says:

    Just say no to this lame (delusional) article.

  5. Noel says:

    Thank you for your thought-provoking blogpost, Kevin. I have much respect for you. BUT…I must also respectfully disagree. I, like Meggie, am married to a pastor of a gospel-centered church. I am a homeschool mother to ten children, so please don’t make assumptions about all libertarians losing our gospel focus. I see two problems with this issue.

    First of all, legally speaking, may I refer you to mandatory minimums, the sentencing guidelines for low-level, non-violent drug offenders? The net result is that first-time offenders often end up being sentenced to TEN YEARS in prison for something like driving their aunt to a drug purchase. Even the judge in the case said it was absolutely ridiculous to sentence the young woman to this much time…but that he was bound by the law. Even the safety valve to such laws is badly done, and something as silly as a driving violation WILL prevent someone from being classified as a first-time offender.

  6. Noel says:

    Kevin, thank you for sharing your concerns. I have much respect for you and am a regular reader of your blog. However, I must respectfully disagree this time. Like Meggie, I am the wife of a gospel-centered church. What’s more, I’m the homeschooling mother of a large family. Hardly a liberal. And I disagree with you for two main reasons.

    First, the legal challenges. Mandatory minimums for low-level, non-violent offenders are bad law. There is the instance of the young woman who unknowingly drove her aunt to a drug purchase…and got ten years in prison. Even the judge in the case thougth the mm were ridiculous. The ‘safety valve’ added to repair this doesn’t work, either since something as simple as a traffic violation can prevent someone from being classified as a first-time offender. Ridiculous. As for our prison population, it strikes me as unusual that the US would have such a much larger percentage of population imprisoned than other countries. If the heart of man is the same universally, surely prison population percentages would look the same the world over…unless we have a bloated government.

    Second, the spiritual issue. I would dearly like to see a pastor cover the issue of jurisdictions. And I’m not sure why the Church is so eager to see the State do the Church’s job. The State’s job is to bear the sword and punish evil. But not all evil is trackable or enforceable by the State. Behold, the 10th commandment, for example. Evil that does not involve one person infringing on the rights of another person should never, never, ever be enforced/punished by the State. The Church, on the other hand, is the steward of the Truth and issues of the heart. It is the Church’s job to preach and discipline (to the point of excommunication, if needed). It is the Church’s job to examine the flock and the hearts of the flock.

    Let’s let the Church do the Church’s job. Let’s not let that awesome responsibility default to the State.

  7. Bruce says:

    I know Kevin DeYoung says he rarely responds to comments on the blog, but this blog post really needs further comment from him.

  8. Rick says:

    I think Kevin ought to read more about this issue. Yes, I understand the concerns he cites, but they are misguided.

    What is really surprising is Kevin’s apparent support for the idea that people should be imprisoned simply to reinforce a needed “negative stigma”. The issue is not about preventing people from using drugs…the law has never been able to do that. The issue is rather protecting innocent people and refraining from locking up people whose behavior was victimless.

    I am very surprised and upset that DeYoung would write something like this.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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