11. Legalize, control, tax all drugs (grant amnesty to imprisoned non-violent users and low-level dealers)
If there is one particular federally-authorized and federally-controlled program that has shown zero benefit to the public, but has created widespread corruption and hardship, it is the “War on Drugs”. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), a division of the U.S. Department of Justice, tries to claim success in their enforcement and interdiction endeavors on their web site. Then, for every reduction in one type of drug use, and for every reduction in production of some illegal drug in one region, they try to justify their existence and budget by listing the new drugs-of-choice trends and the new production capabilities of the latest and greatest narco-states. I do not have to be a cynic to surmise that their “war” is endless.
Speaking of narco-states, I do not have to be a cynic to note that a good analogy is the Whack-a-mole game. It is obvious that the money and organizations that underwrite and profit by the production and distribution of illegal drugs are mobile and, apparently, politically connected in some sense. If not, how do they disappear from one area or country and, sure enough, show up with full production capacity in some far-removed corner. Seriously, how does this happen?
As to hardship, we have over 2 million convicted felons currently incarcerated in this country. Overall, around 20% of the prisoners are caged for non-violent drug offenses; in federal institutions by themselves, the portion is 50%. The average sentence is over 5 years. This human warehousing runs billions of dollars per year in direct costs. The cost to the individuals imprisoned – and to their families – is incalculable. It is true that most of these drug-offenders were convicted under state or local laws. But the impetus, the basic law formulation, and most of the funding comes from the federal layer of government – again, the “War on Drugs”.
And for what? Despite all of the propaganda to the contrary, neither “crystal meth”, nor heroin, nor “crack cocaine”, nor LSD, nor psylocybin, nor marijuana, nor all of them put together affect the country as negatively as alcohol. For every horror story of personal or family tragedy involving these drugs, there are more such tragedies related to alcohol abuse. For one example, alcohol was involved in 41% of traffic fatalities in 2002 – approximately 17,500 deaths.
Strangely, it is difficult to find researched estimates of dollar costs associated with drug and alcohol abuse. An estimate for 1992 by the Lewin Group for the National Institute on Drug Abuse came up with a figure of about $150 billion for the total cost of alcohol abuse, as opposed to about $98 billion as the total cost of drug abuse. However, more than half of the figure for drug abuse was directly related to the fact that drug abuse was defined as criminal behavior per se. Within that portion, government functions (e.g., investigation, incarceration) took up over $17 billion. And that was 1992 – nowadays these police and prison functions cost us much more money – a fact for which we do have data.
To re-emphasize this major point – there are two categories of crime that are not symptomatic of alcohol abuse, but do apply to “drugs”. The first category is crime related to purchase, manufacture, and distribution of drugs. Of course this is the essence of the War on Drugs. If there were no such “war”, there would be no such crimes. The second category is crime that is undertaken in order to procure the money to purchase drugs. If drug abuse was legally the same as alcohol abuse, then the motivation for criminal behavior involving drug use would be reduced for two reasons:
1) legalization of drugs will eliminate the super-profits of the illegal markets, certainly reducing the cost to the consumer;
2) the current illegality of the markets reenforces a culture of scofflaw – if a person is a criminal due to procurement of drugs, then – what the hell – be a criminal.
Regulation of these types of drugs should be revised at the same time as the War on Drugs is curtailed. At the federal level, control should address importation, interstate commerce, safety standards, statistical records, and some level of taxation. The “retail” level of alcohol control is usually legislated and administered at the state level in our country. The same could be true of legalized hallucinogenic, narcotic, and “recreational” drugs.
Beyond regulation there are criminal issues that are drug-induced or drug-aggravated. We have laws that cover almost every kind of crime that can be imagined for behavior related to intoxication, such as “driving under the influence”. Many of them reference drugs as well as alcohol. It should be fairly simple to enlarge the context of all intoxication-related criminal statutes to include all of the other drug categories. “Under the influence …” was practically an excuse for bad – if not sociopathic – behavior when I was young. This is definitely not the case now – criminal acts “under the influence” are still criminal acts. This fact should not change, if the “influence” is legalized drugs.
Another facet of this issue is that some of these drugs are genuinely medicinal. There is no reason to bar the use of marijuana for the uses that are known and shown to be beneficial – e.g., pain management, glaucoma relief. Many states have already recognized this fact, but the federal government maintains an adversarial position. It treats any exception as a threat to the overall program and, in fact, suppresses research that supports the notion of benefits that might be derived from use of their “controlled substances”.
What about addiction? Here, alcohol treatment shows the way. We – citizens of the U.S.A – have made real progress lately in reducing the social damage that is due to alcohol abuse. Two decades ago, 60% of traffic deaths were alcohol-related – about 26,000 people. I personally know many more people today who are recovered alcoholics than people who over-indulge, which is very different from the experience of my youth, when the ratio was reversed. Maybe it’s the people whom I know today, as opposed to the people whom I knew many years ago, but it seems to me that the culture has changed radically with respect to intoxication. And I see the same relatively stronger sense of responsibility in young people of my children’s generation.
So how did we get here? What prompted the War on Drugs? Considering that the majority of our voting-age citizens have used one or more of these illegal drugs in the last 40 years, and considering that said users rarely speak of regrets for said use; it does not appear to be a non-negotiable societal norm. Its origination seems more likely to be a vestige of the famous “generation gap” cultural divide of the 1960s. At this point the elder group that was somewhat traumatized by the emergence of a “counter culture” are declining in numbers. This seems to be an historical juncture during which we can and should re-evaluate the situation.
As in the case of the 18th Amendment to our Constitution, which authorized prohibition of “intoxicating liquors”, the War on Drugs has prevented little abuse (if any); has facilitated the growth and enrichment of truly criminal gangs; has criminalized a large segment of the population; and has cost our country billions of dollars for nothing more than a false sense of “doing something”. I recommend that we take a more rational approach to the issue. We can call it “Another Step on the Long March to Logical Political Arrangements and Laws”.