Pubdate: Mon, 23 May 2011
Source: Dartmouth, The (Dartmouth College, NH Edu)
Copyright: 2011 The Dartmouth, Inc.
Author: Jonathan Pedde
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


Over the past two weeks, tens of thousands of Mexico City residents 
took to the streets to protest their country's continuing drug 
violence. In light of the obvious suffering caused by the continuing 
violence, we need to re-evaluate the war on drugs.

I hate drugs. They ruin the lives of many users and impose severe 
costs on users' families and communities.

Unfortunately, the developed world's criminalization of many drugs 
has been neither effective nor free from unintended consequences. 
Though we may wish to judge the war on drugs by the good intentions 
of those who instigate it, we must evaluate it based on the abysmal 
outcomes that it has produced.

The war is not succeeding: The United Nations' Office on Drugs and 
Crime estimates that 5 percent of the world's adult population still 
uses illegal drugs and that the global drug industry is worth $320 
billion. Most discouragingly, countries with harsher drug laws do not 
have fewer drug users than countries with more lenient laws.

This failure is not due to a lack of law enforcement effort. The 
United States spends almost $45 billion a year enforcing prohibition 
and makes 1.5 million drug-related arrests annually. In 1980, there 
were only 41,000 Americans in jail on drug-related charges. Today, 
there are 500,000. What do we have to show for this? Not much. 
Consider cocaine, for instance, which used to be grown in Columbia 
and then flown by plane across the Caribbean into the United States. 
When the U.S. government closed down this route, cocaine importation 
just moved to Mexico.

Furthermore, prohibition has not been without unintended 
consequences. Indeed, much of the harm caused by drugs is precisely 
due to the fact that they are illegal. For normal, legal businesses, 
murdering your competitors is not a viable business strategy. For 
businesses that exist outside of the legal system, this strategy is 
not only viable but commonplace. In Mexico alone, 40,000 people have 
died in drug-related violence over the last four years.

But the violence of the drug trade is not prohibition's only harmful 
effect. By making drug use illegal, we have turned otherwise 
law-abiding citizens into criminals. America has the highest 
incarceration rate in the world -- nearly five times the world 
average -- which is primarily due to tough drug laws. According to 
Human Rights Watch, "More people are sent to prison in the United 
States for nonviolent drug offenses than for crimes of violence."

The war on drugs has also widened racial inequalities in the United 
States, and young black males bear the brunt of drug-related mass 
incarceration. One in every 20 black men over the age of 18 is 
currently behind bars, and one in every five black men will be 
incarcerated sometime over the course of their lives. Young white men 
use marijuana more than young black men, yet members of the latter 
group are more likely to be arrested for possession of this 
substance. Obviously, a criminal record is detrimental to an 
individual's future success, so racial disparities across a variety 
of measures, including educational achievement and lifetime income, 
are undoubtedly related to these high rates of drug-related incarceration.

But wouldn't legalization lead to large increases in drug usage? 
Actually, probably not. Ten years ago, Portugal abolished all 
criminal penalties for personal possession of all drugs. According to 
the Cato Institute, drug usage in Portugal has fallen and the number 
of people seeking treatment for drug addictions has doubled.

Instead of criminalizing the production and use of drugs, we should 
legalize and tax these activities while supporting greater prevention 
and treatment programs. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron calculated 
that drug legalization in the United States "would save roughly $48.7 
billion per year in government expenditure" and "would yield tax 
revenue of $34.3 billion annually, assuming legal drugs are taxed at 
rates comparable to those on alcohol and tobacco." Furthermore, 
legalization would bring the drug trade into the sunlight, thereby 
ending the drug wars that have destroyed far too many human lives.

I realize that drug legalization would be messy. But the alternative 
- -- continuing the failed war on drugs -- would be even worse.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom