By JOHN P. WALTERS
Wall Street Journal, July 19, 2002
The charge that "nothing works" in the fight against illegal drugs has led
some people to grasp at an apparent solution: legalize drugs. They will
have taken false heart from news from Britain last week, where the
government acted to downgrade the possession of cannabis to the status
of a non-arrestable offense.
According to the logic of the legalizers, it's laws against drug use, not the
drugs themselves, that do the greatest harm. The real problem,
according them, is not that the young use drugs, but that drug laws
distort supply and demand. Violent cartels arise, consumers overpay for
a product of unknown quality, and society suffers when the law restrains
those who "harm no one but themselves."
Better, the argument goes, for the government to control the trade in
narcotics. That should drive down the prices (heroin would be "no more
expensive than lettuce," argues one proponent), eliminate violence,
provide tax revenue, reduce prison crowding, and foster supervised
Sounds good. But is it realistic? The softest spot in this line of reasoning
is the analogy with alcohol abuse. The argument goes roughly like this:
"Alcohol is legal. Alcohol can be abused. Therefore, cocaine should be
legal." Their strongest argument, by contrast, is that prohibition produces
more costs than benefits, while legalized drugs provide more benefits
But legalizers overstate the social costs of prohibition, just as they
understate the social costs of legalization. Take the statistic that more
than 1.5 million Americans are arrested every year for drug crimes.
Legalizers would have us believe that otherwise innocent people are
being sent to prison (displacing "true" criminals) for merely toking up.
But only a fraction of these arrestees are ever sentenced to prison. And
there should be little question that most of those sentenced have earned
their place behind bars.
Some 24% of state prison drug offenders are violent recidivists, while 83% have prior criminal histories.
Only 17% are in prison for "first time offenses," while nominal "low-level" offenders are often criminals
who plea-bargain to escape more serious charges. The reality is that a high percentage of all criminals,
regardless of the offense, use drugs. In New York, 79% of those arrested for any crime tested positive
Drug abuse alone cost an estimated $55 billion in 1998 (excluding criminal justice costs), and deaths
directly related to drug use have more than doubled since 1980. Would increasing this toll make for a
healthier America? Legalization, by removing penalties and reducing price, would increase drug demand.
Make something easier and cheaper to obtain, and you increase the number of people who will try it.
Legalizers love to point out that the Dutch decriminalized marijuana in 1976, with little initial impact. But as
drugs gained social acceptance, use increased consistently and sharply, with a 300% rise in use by 1996
among 18-20 year-olds.
Britain, too, provides an instructive example. When British physicians were allowed to prescribe heroin to
certain addicts, the number skyrocketed. From 68 British addicts in the program in 1960, the problem
exploded to an estimated 20,000 heroin users in London alone by 1982.
The idea that we can "solve" our complex drug problem by simply legalizing drugs raises more questions
than it answers. For instance, what happens to the citizenship of those legally addicted? Will they have
their full civil rights, such as voting? Can they be employed as school bus drivers? Nurses? What of a
woman, legally addicted to cocaine, who becomes pregnant? Should she be constrained by the very
government that provides for her habit?
Won't some addicts seek larger doses than those medically prescribed? Or seek to profit by selling their
allotment to others, including minors? And what about those promised tax revenueshow do they
materialize? As it is, European drug clinics aren't filled with productive citizens, but rather with
demoralized zombies seeking a daily fix. Won't drugs become a disability entitlement?
Will legalization eliminate violence? The New England Journal of Medicine reported in 1999 on the risks
for women injured in domestic violence. The most striking factor was a partner who used cocaine, which
increased risk more than four times. That violence is associated not with drug laws, but with the drug. A
1999 report from the Department of Health and Human Services showed that two million children live
with a parent who has a drug problem. Studies indicate that up to 80% of our child welfare caseload
involves caregivers who abuse substances. Drug users do not harm only themselves.
Legalizers like to argue that government-supervised production and distribution of addictive drugs will
eliminate the dangers attributed to drug prohibition. But when analyzing this "harm reduction" argument,
consider the abuse of the opiate OxyContin, which has resulted in numerous deaths, physicians facing
criminal charges, and addicts attacking pharmacies. OxyContin is a legally prescribed substance, with
appropriate medical usesthat is, it satisfies those conditions legalizers envision for cocaine and heroin.
The point is clear: The laws are not the problem.
Former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed that drugs place us in a dilemma: "We are required to
choose between a crime problem and a public heath problem." Legalization is a dangerous mirage. To
address a crime problem, we are asked to accept a public health crisis. Yet if we were to surrender, we
would surely face both problemsintensified.
Mr. Walters is director of the National Office of Drug-Control Policy.
Copyright � 2002 The Wall Street Journal All Rights Reserved