On Jan. 19, 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act went into effect, banning the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol across the entire U.S. (See WikiPedia for a summary of the Prohibition experiment. Did you know you could legally get whiskey during Prohibition on a doctor's prescription? I didn't.) This led to 13 years of increasing disrespect for the law, speakeasies, bathtub gin, lethal bootleg booze cut with poisonous substances, public gunfights between rival gangs of bootleggers, foreigners smuggling booze (legally obtained in Europe) into the U.S., etc. etc., until the whole thing was repealed by the Twenty-First Amendment on Dec. 5, 1933, throwing the regulation of alcohol back to the states. For a detailed explanation of exactly how and why this experiment didn't work, see this article from the Cato Institute.
Does any of this sound familiar? We have another "Prohibition" experiment in progress worldwide right now, based solely on the fact that the U.S. government, for the last 60 years or so, has made it illegal to get high in this country except on alcohol or nicotine. As a result, we've created a worldwide network of illegal drug trafficking that makes the Prohibition bootleggers look like a Tuesday afternoon ladies' sewing circle. The economies of entire third world countries depend on the fact that it's illegal to buy heroin, opium, cocaine, etc. in the United States. The latest president of Bolivia was elected partly on his promise to make it easier to grow coca.
We could stop this, you know. In fact, we could save a lot of money, save a lot of lives, and probably advance the medical profession in a number of useful ways. All we have to do is legalize all drugs, and regulate and tax them exactly the same way booze and cigarettes are regulated and taxed (which would mean that minors couldn't legally buy them; you couldn't legally drive a car while under the influence; in some counties you'd have to go across the county line to get them). Yes. All drugs, including things like Ecstasy. Some of them will kill you? So will booze and ciggies. At least if they are regulated and taxed, we can control the dosage and purity of what is sold.
Getting high is immoral? That's a tricky issue. Even if you assume - and I don't - that the state has grounds for regulating morality, whatever that is, it seems to me that by legalizing alcohol and nicotine for the purpose, we've cut the moral high ground right out from under our feet. We don't really object to people getting high: we just object to people getting high on those drugs. One of the lessons of Prohibition was that making a popular practice illegal doesn't reduce the number of people doing it. I'm talking public safety and public health here. The consumption of intoxicating substances, by itself, is a victimless crime; the crimes that create real victims are mainly related to the fact that the activity is illegal. In fact, the "drug war" is worse than Prohibition: in Prohibition you couldn't be busted for possession.
If we legalized all dope, we could:
- Remove the incentive for international criminal gangs to run drugs into the U.S. (most recently, concealed surgically in the bellies of puppies).
- Quit putting 30% of the population of our inner cities in the slammer for possession, or trafficking of minor amounts. Probably build fewer prisons.
- Reduce the incentive for the constant gang wars in our inner cities, since the bulk of them are turf battles over drug sales.
- Probably, reduce the number of police we need, by reducing the number of crimes they have to chase. At least, allow the police to concentrate on crimes against person and property; in my neighborhood, if you're burglarized, you can't get the cops to show up - they're all down in the ghetto chasing the drug gangs.
- Certainly reduce the impact on our overloaded court system.
- Do actual research into the medical properties of marijuana, and possibly other drugs, currently prohibited by our ridiculous laws. Who knows what we might find?
- With any luck, improve pain management for people with serious chronic pain issues; right now much of the medical profession is so paranoid about "enabling addiction" that it denies opiates even to terminally ill cancer patients (if you're dying in pain, who cares if you're also addicted to Oxycontin??).
- The economies of many countries will be severely affected.
- We'd have to give Colombia actual development aid, instead of military helicopters and "advisers".
- We'd have to put serious effort into rebuilding Afghanistan, in much of which right now the only realistic cash crop is opium poppies.
- The whole Golden Triangle (Thailand, Burma/Myanmar, Laos) in southeast Asia would be affected.
- On the plus side, with any luck the military junta in Myanmar would collapse; I'm sure they rely on drug money.
- Ditto the FARC in Colombia; without drug money, they'll have real trouble supporting that insurgency.
- We'd have to do something serious about our inner cities. Right now the only option available there, in which a young man or woman has a chance to make serious money with the kind of education and training our schools offer them, is drug dealing. This is a disgrace and we need to fix it; we never will while the drugs are illegal and the supposed easy cash is so good. (And if you want to find out just how mythical the "supposed easy cash" is, read the chapter in Steven Leavitt's Freakonomics entitled "Why do drug dealers live with their moms?")
- We'd have to build educational programs to encourage people not to use intoxicants, because they are bad for you, just like the ones we have for booze and cigarettes. Some of this (NarcAnon) is already in place.
- We'd have to expand the existing programs to help people get unaddicted, once they discover they really don't want to be. Right now there's no money for this because it's all going toward expanding the prison system.
Nothing in this is based on any detailed research; these are just the implications that seem obvious to me, based on the last 30 years of reading the newspaper.
It'll never happen while the current administration is in office. It'll never happen while the party in power is willing to defer to the Religious Right on "moral" issues. That doesn't mean there aren't real public policy reasons for considering it. Thanks for listening to my rant.