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"Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force ! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master."
George Washington.

Twelve reasons why drugs should be legalized

This article is from The Pragmatist, August 1988. This version is edited for grammatical usage and word selection. Examples and data are historical, but the arguments are valid and applicable in the present.

(Go here for the fraud of the century.)

There are no panaceas in the world, but the legalization of drugs would do more than any single act or policy to eliminate many of today's socio-political afflictions. Removing legal penalties from the production, sale and use of "controlled substances" would alleviate at least a dozen of our biggest social or political problems.

With proposals for legalization finally in the public eye, there is a need for some sort of catalog that lists the benefits of legalization. For advocates, this list is an inventory of facts and arguments. For opponents, this list is a painful account of the problems that opponents may be perpetuating. The list is intended both as a resource for participants in the legalization debate and as a starting point for wishful participants who lack facts.

Are we ready to stop wringing our hands and start solving problems?

1. Legalizing drugs would make our streets and homes safer.

As Jeffrey Rogers Hummel states in Heroin: The Shocking Story," April 1988 --- estimates vary widely for the proportion of violent/property crime related to drugs. Forty percent is a midpoint or measure of central tendency. In an October 1987 survey by Wharton Econometrics for the U.S. Customs Service, the 739 police chiefs responding blamed drugs for 1/5 of murders and rapes, 1/4 of car thefts, 2/5 of robberies and assaults and 1/2 of the nation's burglaries and thefts." The numbers are much greater today at the end of the century. History repeats itself and we are re-learning the devastation of 1920's Prohibition today. Drugs are products, like alcohol in the '20s, that people want and will ignore the authorities to obtain. Nothing will stop the desire for any product that people want.

The theoretical and statistical correlations between drugs and crime are well established. In a 2 1/2-year study of Detroit crime, Lester P. Silverman, former associate director of the National Academy of Sciences' Assembly of Behavior and Social Sciences, found that a 10 percent increase in the price of heroin alone "produced an increase of 3.1 percent total property crimes in poor nonwhite neighborhoods." Armed robbery jumped 6.4 percent and simple assault by 5.6 percent throughout the city.

The reasons are not difficult to understand. When law enforcement restricts the supply of drugs, the price of drugs rises. In 1984, a kilogram of cocaine worth $4000 in Colombia sold at wholesale for $30,000, and at retail in the United States for some $300,000. At the time a Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman noted, matter-of-factly, that the wholesale price doubled in six months "due to crackdowns on producers and smugglers in Columbia and the U.S." Statistics indicating the additional number of people killed or mugged in direct relation to the DEA's crackdown on cocaine are not available. The obvious point is that black markets for any desirable illegal products cannot be stopped.

For heroin, the factory-to-retail price differential is even greater. According to U.S. News & World Report, in 1985 a gram of pure heroin in Pakistan cost $5.07, but it sold for $2425 on the street in America--nearly a 500% markup.

The unhappy consequence is that crime also rises, for at least four reasons:

  1. Addicts must shell out hundreds of times the cost of goods, so they often must turn to crime to finance their habits. The higher the price goes, the more they need to steal to buy the same amount.
  2. At the same time, those who deal or purchase the stuff find themselves carrying extremely valuable goods, and become attractive targets for assault.
  3. Police officers and others suspected of being informants for law enforcement quickly become targets for reprisals.
  4. The streets become literally a battleground for "turf" among competing dealers, as control over a particular block or intersection can net thousands of additional drug dollars per day.

Conversely, if and when drugs are legalized, their price will collapse and so will the sundry drug-related motivations to commit crime. Consumers will no longer need to steal to support their habits. A packet of cocaine will be as tempting to grab from its owner as a pack of cigarettes is today. Drug dealers will be pushed out of the retail market by known drugstore retailers. When was the last time we saw employees of Rite Aid pharmacies shoot it out with Thrift Drugs for a corner storefront? When drugs become legal, we will be able to sleep in our homes and walk the streets more safely. As one letter-writer to the Philadelphia Inquirer put it, "law-abiding citizens will be able to enjoy not living in fear of assault and burglary."

2. End prison overcrowding.

Prison overcrowding is a serious and persistent problem. Studies show that the prison environment has become increasingly violent and faceless which exacerbates an already dangerous and dehumanizing environment. Prison is intended to punish "real" criminals for their crimes, however, as you will see, the overcrowding is due mostly to drug offenders.

According to the 1988 Statistical Abstract of the United States, between 1979 and 1985 the number of people in federal and state prisons and local jails grew by 57.8 %, nine times faster than the general population. Governments at all levels keep building more prisons (spending our money), but the number of new prisoners keeps outpacing the capacity to hold them. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons' 1985 Statistical Report, as of September 30, 1985, federal institutions held 35,959 prisoners --- 41% over the rated prison capacity of 25,638. State prisons were 114% of capacity in 1986.

Of 31,346 sentenced prisoners in federal institutions, drug law violators were the largest single category, 9487. A total of 4613 were in prison but not yet sentenced under various charges. Since 1985, the courts have released drug-related criminals to the street as quickly as possible to free prison space for real criminals. We get a vicious cycle of repeated drug offenses followed by release to alleviate overcrowding. Burglaries and theft would decrease by 50% if drugs were legalized because the price would decrease.

Legalizing drugs would immediately relieve the strain and burden on the prison system, since drug offenders would no longer be incarcerated. Also, since drug users would no longer commit violent/property crimes to pay artificially high prices for their habits, there would be fewer future drug-related criminals to incarcerate. Instead of building more prisons, we could pocket the savings and still be safer.

Removing the 9487 drug inmates would leave 26,472. Of those, 7200 were in for assault, burglary, larceny-theft, or robbery. If the proportion of such crimes that is related to drugs is 40 percent, without drug laws another 2900 persons would never have made it to federal prison. The inmates who remained would be left in a less cruel, degrading environment. If we repealed the drug laws, we could eventually bring the prison population down comfortably below the prison's rated capacity.

3. Drug legalization would free up police resources to fight non-drug related crimes against people and property.

The considerable police efforts now expended against drug activity and drug-related crime (1/3 to 1/2 of resources) could be redirected toward protecting innocent people from those who would still commit crime in the absence of drug laws. The police could protect us more effectively, since police could focus resources on catching rapists, murderers and the remaining perpetrators of crimes against people and property.

4. Unclog the court system.

If you are accused of a crime today, your Constitutional Right to an expeditious, fair trial is impeded by our clogged court system. Guilty or innocent, you must live with the anxiety of impending trial for a much longer period of time. The process is even more sluggish for civil proceedings.

There simply aren't enough judges to handle the skyrocketing caseload. Since drug legalization would significantly dimish crime by the eliminatation of drug and drug-related crimes, the legislation would remove tens of thousands of cases from the court dockets across the continent, enabling the remaining cases to move sooner and faster. Prosecutors would have more time to handle each case; judges could return to real law and render more thoughtful and realistic opinions.

Improved efficiency at the lower levels would have a ripple effect on higher courts. Better decisions in the lower courts would yield fewer grounds for appeals, reducing the caseloads of Appeals Courts; and in any event there would be fewer cases to review in the first place.

5. Reduce corruption of officials.

Drug-related police corruption manifests itself in two major forms. Police offer drug dealers protection in the police's precinct for a share of the profits (or demand a share under threat of exposure), and police seize a dealer's merchandise to sell themselves.

Seven current or former Philadelphia police officers were indicted May 31 on charges of falsifying records of money and drugs confiscated from dealers. During a house search, one suspect turned over $20,000 he had made from marijuana sales, but the officers gave him a receipt for $1870. Another dealer, reports The Philadelphia Inquirer, "told the grand jury he was charged with possession of five pounds of marijuana, although 11 pounds were found in his house."

In Miami, 59 officers have been fired or suspended since 1985 for suspicion of wrongdoing. The police chief and investigators expect the number eventually to approach 100. As The Palm Beach Post reported, "That would mean about 1 in 100 officers on the thousand man force will have been tainted by one form of scandal or another."

Most of the 59 police officers have been accused of trafficking, possessing or using illegal drugs. In the biggest single case, 17 officers allegedly participated in a ring that stole $15 million worth of cocaine from dealers "... and even traffic violators."

What distinguishes the Miami scandal is that "Police are alleged to be drug traffickers themselves, not just protectors of criminals who are engaged in illegal activities," said The Post. According to James Frye, a criminologist at American University in Washington, the gravity of the situation in Miami today is comparable to Prohibition-era Chicago in the 1920s and '30s.

The Prohibition comparison is very applicable. Also, the problem is not limited to Miami and Philadelphia. The astronomical profits from the illegal drug trade are a powerful inducement for law enforcement agents to illegally obtain a share of the huge profits. These huge profits would disappear if RiteAid or Walgreens could legally sell marijuana, cocaine, and heroin for the same price as a designer antibiotic.

Legalizing drugs would eliminate the dollar incentive to corruption and enable police to clean up their image. The elimination of drug-related corruption cases would further reduce the strain on the courts, freeing judges and investigators to handle other cases more thoroughly and expeditiously.

6. Legalization would save tax money.

Efforts to interdict the drug traffic alone cost $6.2 billion in 1986, according to Wharton Econometrics of Bala Cynwyd, Pa. If we add the cost of trying and incarcerating users, traffickers, and those who commit crime to pay for their drugs, the tab runs well above $10 billion annually. Don't forget --- these are mid-1980 dollars. The cost has grown by a factor of 10 times or more in the 1990s. The crisis in inmate housing would disappear, saving taxpayers the expense of building more prisons in the future.

Savings would be redirected toward better police protection and speedier judicial service. Or savings could be refunded to the taxpayers in the form of a tax cut. Or the federal portion of the costs could pay down the budget deficit, national debt, and Social Security/Medicare costs. Or use the savings to renovate old schools or build new schools where children could be taught not to use drugs. For a change, it's a happy problem to ponder. But it takes legalization to make it possible.

7. Legalized drugs would cripple organized crime.

The Mafia (heroin), Jamaican gangs (crack), and the Medellin Cartel (cocaine) stand to lose billions in drug profits from legalization. On a per-capita basis, members of organized crime, particularly at the top, stand to lose the most from legalizing the drug trade.

The underworld became big business in the United States when alcohol was prohibited. Few others would risk setting up the illegal distribution networks, bribing officials or killing a policeman or competitor once in a while. When alcohol was re-legalized, reputable manufacturers resumed production. The risk and the high profits disappeared from the alcohol trade. Even if organized crime wanted to keep control over alcohol, the gangsters could not have targeted every manufacturer and every beer store. Customers preferred good alcohol over rot-gut and poison. The profits from illegal alcohol were minuscule compared to the dollars generated from today's illegal drugs. These dollars are the underworld's last great source of illegal income--dwarfing anything to be made from gambling, prostitution and any other vice.

Legalizing drugs would eliminate this huge income source from under organized crime. Smugglers and pushers would have to go legitimate or go out of business. There simply wouldn't be enough other criminal endeavors to employ them all. Drug users would buy from reputable manufacturers at a much lower price. A user's habit could be supported with honest work because high drug prices would be eliminated. Drugs that kill and blind people would disappear. Users of legal drugs would have the right to their day in court, if a drug manufacturer is negligent. No such rights exist today.

If we are concerned about the influence of organized crime on government, industry and our own personal safety, we could strike no single more damaging blow against today's gangsters than to legalize drugs.

8. Legal drugs would be safer. Legalization is a consumer protection issue.

Because "controlled substances" are illegal, the drug trade today lacks many of the consumer safety features common to other markets: instruction sheets, warning labels, product quality control, manufacturer accountability. Forcing products underground makes those products, including drugs, more dangerous than if the products were manufactured by reputable firms.

Nobody denies that currently illegal drugs can be dangerous. But so can aspirin, countless other over-the-counter drugs and common household items; yet the proven hazards of matches, modeling glue and lawn mowers are not used as reasons to make them all illegal.

Practically anything can kill if used in certain ways. Like heroin, salt can make you sick or dead if you take enough of it. The point is to learn what the threshold is, and to keep below it. That many things can kill is not a reason to prohibit them all--it is a reason to learn how to handle these products and provide the desired safety instructions. The same goes for drugs. Today, there are instructions for the use of virtually every product, and recourse through the courts for damages caused by any product including drugs.

Today's drug consumer literally doesn't know what he's buying. The stuff is so valuable that sellers have an incentive to "cut" (dilute) the product with foreign substances that look like the real thing. Most street heroin is only 3 to 6 percent pure; street cocaine, 10 to 15 percent. Since purity varies greatly, consumers can never be really sure how much to take to produce the desired effects. If one is accustomed to 3 percent heroin and takes a 5 percent dose, suddenly you've nearly doubled your intake. Reputable drug manufacturers offering drugs on the open market are driven by different incentives than pushers. They rely on name-brand recognition to build market share, and on customer loyalty to maintain it. There would be a powerful incentive to provide a product of uniform quality: killing customers or losing them to competitors is not a proven way to success. Today, dealers can make so much from a single sale that there is no incentive to cultivate a clientele. In fact, police make it imperative to make the sale fast and move on --- hell with the customers.

Pushers don't provide labels or instructions, let alone mailing addresses. The illegal nature of the business makes such things unnecessary or dangerous to the enterprise. After legalization, pharmaceutical companies could safely try to win each other's customers, and guard against liability suits with better information and more reliable products.

Even pure heroin on the open market would be safer than today's impure drugs. As long as customers know what they're getting and what it does, they can adjust their dosages to obtain the intended effect safely. INFORMATION is the best protection against the potential hazards of drugs or any other product. Legalizing drugs would promote consumer health and safety.

9. Legalization would slow the spread of AIDS and other diseases.

As D.R. Blackmon notes ("Moral Deaths," June 1988), drug prohibition has helped propagate AIDS among intravenous drug users.

Because intravenous drug users inject heroin and other narcotics with hypodermic needles, access to needles is restricted. The shortage of needles causes users to share needles. If one IV user has infected blood and some enters the needle as it is pulled out, the next user may shoot the infectious agent directly into his own bloodstream.

Before the AIDS epidemic, this process was already known to spread other diseases, principally hepatitis B. Legalizing drugs would eliminate the motivation to restrict the sale of hypodermic needles. With needles cheap and freely available, the drug users would have little need to share them and risk acquiring someone else's virus.

Despite the pain and mess involved, injection became popular because, as The Washington Times put it, "that's the way to get the biggest, longest high for the money." Inexpensive, legal heroin, on the other hand, would enable customers to get the same effect (using a greater amount) from more hygienic methods such as smoking or swallowing--cutting further into the use of needles and further slowing the spread of AIDS.

10. Legalization would halt the erosion of other civil liberties.

Hundreds of government agencies and corporations have used the alleged cost of illegal drugs as an excuse to test their employees for drug usage. Pennsylvania Rep. Robert Walker (he was defeated) embarked on a crusade to withhold federal money from any company or government agency that didn't guarantee a "drug-free workplace". This is a Don Quixote crusade.

The federal government has pressured foreign countries to grant access to bank records so it can check for "laundered" drug money. Because drug dealers handle lots of cash, domestic banks are now required to report cash deposits over $10,000 to the Internal Revenue Service for evidence of illicit profit.

The drugs and drug profits that led to the abrogation of civil liberties would disappear with drug legalization. Before drugs became big business, investors could put their money in secure banks abroad without fear of harassment. Mom and pop stores could deposit their cash receipts undaunted that they may appear like criminals.

Nobody tests urine for levels of sugar or caffeine as a requirement for employment or grounds for dismissal. However, if caffeine were declared illegal it would certainly become a lot riskier to use, and hence a possible target for testing "for the sake of our employees". Legalizing today's illegal drugs, which weren't illegal before 1913, would make them safer and deflate the drive to test for drug use.

11. Legalization would stabilize foreign countries and make them safer for residents and travelers.

The connection between drug traffickers and guerrilla groups is fairly well documented (see "One More Reason," August 1987). South American revolutionaries have developed a symbiotic relationship with coca growers and smugglers: the guerrillas protect the growers and smugglers in exchange for cash to finance their subversive activities. In Peru, competing guerrilla groups, the Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru, fight for the lucrative right to represent coca farmers and drug traffickers.

Traffickers themselves are well prepared to defend their crops against intruding government forces. A Peruvian military helicopter was destroyed with bazooka fire in March, 1987, and 23 police officers were killed. The following June, drug dealers attacked a camp of national guardsmen in Venezuela, killing 13.

In Colombia, scores of police officers, more than 20 judges, two newspaper editors, the attorney general and the justice minister have been killed in that country's war against cocaine traffickers. Two supreme court justices, including the court president, have resigned following death threats. The Palace of Justice was sacked in 1985 as guerrillas destroyed the records of dozens of drug dealers.

"This looks like Beirut," said the mayor of Medellin, Colombia, after a bomb ripped apart a city block where the reputed head of the Medellin Cartel lives. It "is a warning of where the madness of the violence that afflicts us can bring us."

Legalizing the international drug trade would effect organized crime and subversion abroad much as it would in the United States. A major source for guerrilla funding would disappear. So would the motive for kidnapping or assassinating officials and private individuals. As in the United States, ordinary Colombians and Peruvians once again could walk the streets and travel the roads without fear of drug-related violence. Countries would no longer be paralyzed by smugglers.

12. Legalization would repair U.S. relations with other countries and curtail anti-American sentiment around the world.

  1. When Honduran authorities spirited away alleged drug lord Juan Matta Ballesteros and had him extradited to the United States in April, Hondurans rioted in the streets and demonstrated for days at the U.S. embassy in Tegucigulpa.

    The action violated Honduras's constitution, which prohibits extradition. Regardless of what Matta may have done, many Hondurans viewed the episode as a flagrant violation of their little country's laws, just to satisfy the wishes of the Colossus of the North.

  2. When the U.S. government, in July 1986, sent Army troops and helicopters to raid cocaine factories in Bolivia, Bolivians were outraged. The constitution "has been trampled," said the president of Bolivia's House of Representatives. The country's constitution requires congressional approval for any foreign military presence.
  3. One thousand coca growers marched through the capital, La Paz, chanting "Death to the United States" and "Up with Coca" last May in protest over a U.S.-sponsored bill to prohibit most coca production. In late June, 5000 angry farmers overran a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration jungle base, demanding the 40 American soldiers and drug agents leave immediately.

    U.S. pressure on foreign governments to fight their domestic drug industries has clearly reinforced the image of America as an imperialist bully, blithely indifferent to the concerns of other peoples. To Bolivian coca farmers, the U.S. government is not a beacon of freedom, but a threat to their livelihoods. To many Hondurans it seems that their government will ignore its own constitution on request from Uncle Sam. Leftists exploit such episodes to fan nationalistic sentiment to promote their agendas.

    Legalizing the drug trade would remove some of the reasons to hate America and deprive local politicians of the chance to exploit their citizens. The U.S. would have a new opportunity to repair its reputation in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

  4. I believe and our Constitution specifies that the federal government must provide for the common defense. I believe the US should vigorously and overwhelmingly defend itself overseas for any and all military infractions against the US, but this drug war cannot be won. People will do what they want to do whether they live in the US or the USSR.