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Don't Legalize Drugs


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 injection facilities.

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 than costs.

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 for drugs.

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 revenues—how 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 uses—that 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 problems—intensified.

Mr. Walters is director of the National Office of Drug-Control Policy.

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Last Updated: October 21, 2002

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