A century ago, alcohol prohibition in the United States began with the 18th amendment prohibiting the production, importation and sale of alcoholic beverages and ended in 1933 with the 21st amendment. The goal of prohibition was to reduce alcohol consumption. While prohibition succeeded in reducing alcohol consumption somewhat, it resulted in many unintended consequences including public health problems, an increase in organized crime, and corruption of law enforcement. The war on
drugs otherwise peaceful people who choose to ingest intoxicants began in 1971 with Richard Nixon. It’s not that he refused to learn from the prohibition era. It was a calculated move with a political purpose. Namely, to target black people and anti-war hippies. Here’s a quote from John Ehrlichman, the domestic policy chief for the Nixon administration:
”. You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did
Edit (2020/12/05): This quote is poorly sourced. Upon further research, it seems Nixon’s war on drugs wasn’t politically motivated despite still being a disaster.
Still, the war on “drugs” only played a small part of law enforcement efforts on the whole until Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in 1981. Reagan expanded the drug war with a focus on criminal penalties instead of treatment. His policies resulted in a massive increase in incarcerations of nonviolent drug users. His wife Nancy Reagan started the Just Say No campaign to teach schoolchildren not to use drugs. It was about as effective at reducing drug use as abstinence-based sex education is at reducing sex. The most popular Just Say No program, DARE, showed zero effect on drug use according to 20 controlled studies. Perhaps that’s because DARE spreads lies and gives children a contorted picture of the war on drugs? In 1986, congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act changing federal supervised release programs increasing focus on punishment rather than rehabilitation, prohibiting analogs of controlled substances and requiring mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug users. The sentencing discrepency between crack and powder cocaine resulted in an uneven increase in incarceration rates for black people. Doesn’t that sound familiar?
In 2020, a whole century since the beginning of prohibition era, there are signs that we are finally learning what history has to teach us: The unintended consequences of drug prohibition are worse than the problem it’s meant to solve. As of today, medical cannabis use is legalized in 35 states. The recreational use of cannabis is legalized in 15 states. 16 states have decriminalized cannabis use. Up to 40 states might allow some form of marijuana legalization by the end of 2020. Just a few days ago Oregon became the first state to legalize magic mushrooms for medical use and decriminalize “street drugs”. People found in possession of street drugs will face a ticket and a 100 dollar fine rather than a felony. They will optionally be offered treatment. Despite recent progress, the war on “drugs” is still being waged almost 50 years later and drugs are cheaper and easier to acquire than ever. And that’s where we’re at today.
I could argue why drugs should be legalized without giving you the history lesson first, but historical context is important. It’s important to realize just how much harm the war on “drugs” has already caused thus far. Millions of people’s lives have been destroyed due to the effects of the war on drugs to the point that it is now a pervasive part of our culture including literature, movies and music. Drug addiction ruins people’s lives, but the war on drugs has ruined more. I am arguing for legalization of all drugs. I’m going to offer arguments for legalization from several different perspectives.
Arguments in Favor of Legalization
Drugs should be legal because your own body belongs to you, not the government. If I want to chop my finger off so I only have 4 fingers, I should be able to do it. You can say it’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard of, that something’s wrong with me, that no one in their right mind would do such a thing, but it’s my finger. I’m not by any means comparing doing drugs to cutting your own finger off. Depending on which drug you do, it can be far less dangerous or far more dangerous than cutting your own finger off. Cutting your own finger off also doesn’t have any perceivable benefits whereas drugs do. That’s why people do them. Making this argument makes me sound like I lean libertarian, but I don’t think personal autonomy is without limits.
With abortion, there is another life (or potential human life) at stake. Whether you are pro-choice or pro-life, there is at least a potential human life there that you have to take into account in your calculation of banning abortion versus legalizing it. With suicide, it is your own life you are taking. It belongs to you. But it might make sense for agents of the state to have the authority to prevent you from committing suicide if you are in a crisis situation. Although it is your own life and belongs to you as far as the government should be concerned, your future self might be glad someone stopped you. Much like abortion, you can make the case that there is a potential happy human life that is being ended. With explicit informed patient consent as in euthenasia, that argument is much harder to make especially when someone is in great pain, terminally ill, and there is no prospect of future happiness. Anyway, the point is that personal autonomy isn’t an absolute. However, in general, you should be able to do whatever you want so long as it doesn’t infringe upon the rights of others.
You might object that while drug use may not infringe upon others' rights, it may affect them negatively even if you use drugs responsibly. So can watching too much TV, social media, and a million other things we don’t criminalize. While watching too much TV is bad for you, to criminalize watching too much TV would be tyrannical because it means the government gains the right to restrict your viewing. My right to extend my fist ends at your face. Likewise, the right to do drugs, or as I’ll call it, the right to access alternative states of body and mind, means the government isn’t allowed to close you off from having certain types of experiences. If those states of mind produced by drugs are inconvenient for some government agenda like war, then that’s too bad. There is no “right for the government to restrict states of consciousness aversive to conflict”.
Obviously, children should still be prohibited from doing drugs. Their brains aren’t fully developed yet and we have to have some legal cutoff point after which we assume people are intellectually and emotionally mature enough to decide what they want to do with themselves. I’m not sure what that cutoff point is, but we already use that reasoning for many laws. You have to be 17-18 for an unrestricted driving permit. You have to be 18 to get a tattoo (in most states), marry (except Nebraska) or vote. You have to be 21 to legally buy alcohol, marijuana, or tobacco products. You have to be 25 years old to be a representative in the House of Representatives, 30 to be a senator, and 35 to be president. You gain more privileges only as you get older, and for good reason. The easiest, least costly way for the government to determine maturity is just to use age as a proxy. You can argue all day about what the legal age should be for drugs. But, once that age is met, you should be able to legally do the drugs you want as a matter of personal autonomy.
Eliminating Drug Cartels
Besides personal autonomy, there are also strong social reasons for legalizing all drugs. Legalizing all drugs would put an end to the drug cartels and their associated violence by taking away their profits and undermining their whole reason for existing. Drug cartels exist for a specific purpose. Any time you have a commercial enterprise, you need some way to enforce rules regarding the manufacture, distribution and sale of the product. For example, if your illegal product is stolen, you can’t exactly report it to law enforcement. There is no legal recourse you can take. So you resort to violence, or at least make a credible threat of violence to deter future stealing. If you don’t threaten violence, then you have no way to deter stealing and other undesirable behavior. Other competing cartels will use violence to further their operations and you will be “outcompeted”.
Not only would legalization help the United States, but it would also do a huge favor to Mexico which has been torn apart by the war on “drugs”. If the United States could legally produce its own drugs without having to import them in illegally from Mexico, then Mexican drug cartels would hemorrhage money. In fact, US border patrol has already seen a decrease in marijuana trafficking due to many states legalizing it. As the US continues to legalize drugs in more states, we can expect to see Mexican drug cartels lose even more market share until their demand completely disappears, replaced by legally operated businesses in the US.
“Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.” (Narcotics Anonymous pamphlet)
If you believe that quote, then the war on drugs is the definition of insanity. The US has spent over a trillion dollars waging the war on drugs for about half a century. Despite the cost, drug use has expanded. Economic productivity is sacrificed in favor of mass imprisonment of drug users. Even a single minor offense can cost a lifetime of economic opportunity. It can mean you aren’t eligible for certain jobs, health benefits or financial aid. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, roughly half of federal inmates are in prison for drug offenses. In 2018, the Bureau of Prisons reported that the cost for federal inmates was $36,299.25 per year. By legalizing all drugs and pardoning all drug-related offenses, taxpayers could save about 3 billion dollars per year. Not to mention the DEA could be abolished saving tens of billions annually.
Criminalization also burdens the healthcare system dealing with consequences of unsafe, contaminated drug use. Enforcement against drug paraphernalia causes sharing of needles which spreads disease. This wouldn’t be as big of a problem if drugs were legalized since they would be regulated and tested for purity. Places that rely on tourism for economic activity are negatively affected when they are seen as dangerous due to drug cartel activity. Money that is spent on unregulated, illegal drugs can’t be spent on regulated, taxable and legal parts of the economy. Minorities and low income groups that are already economically vulnerable are more likely to be arrested for drugs, further decreasing future job prospects. Smaller economies are heavily distorted by the drug war. I could go on forever, but you can see that the drug war makes no sense from an economic standpoint.
Wherever there is an organized illicit drug industry, there is also going to be police corruption. Mexico knows this all too well. In December 2019, Genaro García Luna, Mexico’s former minister in charge of the federal police for 6 years, was arrested for allegedly taking millions from the Sinaloa cartel in return for safe passage of the cartel’s drug shipments and information on other rival cartels. Just last month General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, Mexico’s former army chief for 6 years, was arrested on drug trafficking and money laundering charges. The CIA in the US was allegedly involved in cocaine trafficking in which several investigations ensued.
The bottom line is dealing with the cartels is mutually beneficial for those in power, so long as they don’t get caught. Those in government and the police have all the wrong economic incentives when it comes to the drug war. In some government positions in countries with rampant corruption, it’s probably an unwritten job requirement to work with the cartels. We’ll probably never know which positions those are for sure though. Corruption happens in the shadows and it’s always difficult to produce any concrete evidence. Legalizing drugs would eliminate the cartel’s source of profit, which means politicians would no longer have any financial incentive to work with them. It follows that drug-related government and police corruption would decrease.
Improved Police-Community Relations
The war on “drugs” is responsible for police militarization more than anything else. Peaceful protestors and rioters face chemical irritants, armored vehicles and riot gear because the war on “drugs” has ensured police have military-style gear. Police militarization causes officers to view themselves as a confrontational force instead of community-oriented. In the eyes of the citizenry, this makes police look like an occupying force rather than public servants.
I’m not dumping all the blame on cops either. The job of police officers is to enforce the law. When the law is unjust, the police still have to enforce it. It’s not fair on them because it makes them look bad. Ending the war on “drugs” would do so much for police-community relations. Children wouldn’t have to watch their parents hauled off to jail for choosing to engage in a victimless activity. Families wouldn’t be torn apart. Drug-related police corruption would end, as I talked about in the above section. Police departments could shift their resources toward stopping murderers and rapists, people causing real harm to society. Without ending the war on “drugs”, public confidence in policing will continue to erode. In the year 2020 where we have nationwide demonstrations against police brutality, the Justice Department declaring NYC, Portland and Seattle “Anarchist Jurisdictions”, and police abandoning precincts, police definitely shouldn’t be perpetuating a failed drug war that has lasted half a century and will only further diminish public trust in the police.
Why not just Decriminalize?
In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, 1 out of every 10 citizens in Portugal was addicted to heroin. To combat this, Portugal decriminalized all drug use. And it worked. Incarceration rates went down, infectious disease cases of HIV went down, and fatal overdoses went down. Decriminalization wasn’t the only thing that changed though. It was accompanied by a culture shift in the public attitude toward drugs and drug addiction. When your country isn’t busy locking people up over drugs, it can focus on helpful things like treatment, housing, and employment to help people recover. Several other countries have ended their war on drugs. So why not just decriminalize drugs? Why the need to legalize?
First off, I need to explain the difference between the two. In general, decriminalization means that there are no longer criminal penalties for an action. There may still be fines. Legalization means that the action is fully legal. There is no associated penalty. Drug possession should, without a doubt, at least be decriminalized because drug use isn’t a criminal issue. Drug manufacture can be regulated by the FDA, but drug possession should be fully legalized. There is no reason to punish drug users solely for possessing drugs whether that be fines or jail time. That’s why all drug possession should be legalized, not just decriminalized.
If you want to deter drug use, then there are better approaches than not fully legalizing drugs. This is where you could get creative. As a single example, turn the idea of a fine on its head. Offer a cash reward to addicts for staying clean. Consider cultural influences and other societal factors that may be causing people to turn toward drugs, such as poverty or mental illness. Perhaps the reason drug use is so high is because society has other problems that aren’t being attended to, and drugs are just a symptom of it. This is where policy could be informed by sociological research. If you think criminalizing or not fully legalizing drugs is the only way to deter their use, then I’d encourage you to think more creatively.
Let’s move on to regulation. Regulation of drugs is important for ensuring drug quality, fair pricing, safety and education. But it’s also probably a good idea not to regulate drugs so heavily that a sizeable black market continues to exist. I’m not going to focus on regulation other than to say deciding on the regulations should be an evidence-based process. Lawmakers have almost 50 years of evidence on how not to treat drugs in society, so maybe they can learn from past mistakes and other countries that have decriminalized drugs and come up with regulations as drugs are legalized.
As for education, let’s talk about some of the things schools shouldn’t do. First and foremost, school drug education programs should stop lying to children about drugs. Schools should stop teaching children that every hard drug user is an addict. Schools should stop teaching abstinence as the only practical way of protecting oneself from harmful drugs. And they should stop using green-tinted goggles to mimic the effects of marijuana. Yes, they actually did that.
So what should schools do? They should tell the truth. They should teach that the war on “drugs” has been one of the greatest moral failures of our time, a colossal waste of money, time, resources and human life that could have been better spent on literally anything else. Education programs should provide a fairminded, evidence-based view of the advantages and disadvantages of drug use per each drug. Drug education programs need to instruct young adults which drugs are worth doing, which are not, how often and in what setting, once they are of age. Drug education should come before most young adults are offered drugs. Program instructors could be social workers instead of police officers because drug addiction is not a criminal issue. It’s a health issue. As we end the war on drugs, social workers should take responsibility for dealing with drug-related issues. Social workers can be trained based on prior drug research and hear testimony from non-addicted healthy drug users and addicts alike so they can get an accurate sense of the positive and negative effects of different drugs. This would put them in a good position to educate youth about drugs.
Post Drug War Society
Now that I’ve covered a few points on education, how will we convert our current society into a post drug war society? One answer is we need better resources for treating drug addiction. Education can only do so much if there aren’t effective resources out there. Drug treatment centers don’t even have to abide by federal guidelines and it’s debatable if they even work at all. That has to change. They need to be evidence-based and evaluated for effectiveness.
Legalization should also be accompanied by a culture shift. Once drugs are legalized, drug users won’t necessarily be criminals. That will go a long way in making it easier for society not to demonize them. People that use drugs are not “bad people”. It’s nowhere near that simple. There are as many reasons people use drugs as there are drugs. There are people that use drugs in a healthy, responsible way and people that don’t. As I said before, there needs to be more resources for drug users in order to promote responsible use. And it’s hard to provide resources for that in a society where drugs are heavily criminalized and stigmatized. In a society where drug use is criminalized and stigmatized, drug users have to hide their drug use from family, friends and strangers for fear of legal and social repercussions. This culture of secrecy causes needless psychological suffering for people that use drugs for the wrong reasons. The social stigma around drug use causes users not to seek out help when they desperately need it. That includes addiction treatment, healthcare and psychiatric help. In a society where drugs are legalized and not stigmatized, none of that would be an issue. Drug users could be more open about their habits and get the resources they need to be responsible without worrying about being shamed or arrested.
The war on “drugs” seems to be coming to an end, albeit slowly. It’s not over yet though. If not for the drug war, Breonna Taylor would still be with us. How many more people are going to have to spend years behind bars and forever be labeled felons for engaging in a victimless activity? How many more honest, otherwise law-abiding citizens are going to die for a war that should never have been waged to begin with? When is the needless violence perpetuated by the war on “drugs” going to finally end? Eventually, there will come a day when the very last person has their life ruined by the war on
drugs human beings. I hope that day comes sooner rather than later.