Drug Legalization: Arguments and Ramifications

Young minds are generally convinced that a drug-filled society is the proper course to pursue, but I think we can all agree that most young people don’t think long-term, and they aren’t equipped to gauge the ramifications of their actions well. Young people are also far more susceptible to group thought, and peer pressure, and the subsequent desire to be cool or hip. Most of the people that fall into the “other” category are not adamantly for legalization or against. They don’t want their kids to have easy access to it, but as long as it’s handled responsibly, they don’t get worked into a lather over the issue. Most of the “other” people are simply waiting for a persuasive argument that convinces them that legalization will somehow benefit society.

ProhiII1) The Debacle Argument. “The War on Drugs has failed …” some will say, and some of them will leave their rebuttal at that.  To which the normal reply would be “… and?”  The implied extension on that answer is, “So, the most prominent action we have taken on drugs was a failure, and we should therefore try nothing more, and finally make the necessary moves toward full legalization.”  This is the opening salvo that proponents for drug legalization usually put forth in their argument to legalize. The logical extension of this argument is that controlled-substances should eventually be available at local retail outlets, and that they should be heavily regulated and taxed in the same manner alcohol is currently heavily regulated and taxed. Each outlet would presumably have to vie for a “controlled substance” license from their local government, and they would receive strikes against them for any violations of those licenses in the same manner such outlets now receive strikes for any violations of their alcohol license. This “War on Drugs is such a debacle, so we should eventually make drugs available at retail outlets” argument is equivalent to saying if one fence didn’t keep the mongoose out, we should just load up the chickens and place them in front of the mongoose’s burrow for easier access.

“Legalizing drugs,” former New York City Mayor Ed Koch once said, “Is the equivalent of attempting to extinguish a fire with napalm.”

2) The Alcohol Argument.  The alcohol argument is, far and away, the most popular counterargument for the pro-legalization crowd.  This argument centers around the fact that marijuana is not as addictive, nor as destructive, as alcohol.  They say alcohol makes you aggressive and angry, but marijuana makes you peaceful and happy, but they have no answer for the idea that just because it’s not as bad, does that mean it’s not bad for the person?  They may calculate the damage that alcohol does to a person, and a society, by citing facts and figures, but they usually have no response to question, “Why would you want to make all those facts and figures worse by introducing yet another mind-altering intoxicant into the open market?”  They simply state that “their” preference for altering their mind is not as bad as the other, and they don’t understand why their preference is still deemed illegal.

As Charles Krauthammer has stated: “The question is not which is worse, alcohol or drugs. The question is, can we accept both legalized alcohol and legalized drugs? The answer is No.”

3) The cost-benefits argument. The cost-benefits argument is the second favorite argument of the legalization crowd. They state that all the evidence that you need to know regarding the failure of the War on Drugs can be found in the accounting books of your local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. It has cost these agencies billions, in enforcement, that has produced results that can, by any measure, be called a failure. They also state that legalization, by contrast, will provide a boon to federal and state coffers through taxation.

As Palash Gosh quotes in a International Business Times article:

Cato Institute, Jeffrey A. Miron, senior lecturer on economics at Harvard University and a senior fellow at Cato, and Katherine Waldock, professor of economics at New York University, found that “Legalization would reduce state and federal deficits by saving approximately $41.3 billion annually on expenditures related to the enforcement of prohibition. Of those savings, $25.7 billion would accrue to state and local governments, while $15.6 billion would accrue to the federal government.

“Legalizing would also free up cops spending time arresting drug offenders.”

The Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) response to such facts and figures is:

“Ask legalization proponents if the alleged profits from drug legalization would be enough to pay for the increased fetal defects, loss of workplace productivity, increased traffic fatalities and industrial accidents, increased domestic violence and the myriad other problems that would not only be high-cost items but extremely expensive in terms of social decay.”

Legalization proponents would probably say that these DEA facts and figures are arbitrary, and not quantifiable, and that they’re subjective to the argument against legalization.  If that is true, and we remain focused purely on economic figures, one would have to say that there is some merit to the argument that legalization could be a financial boon for state and federal governments.  Pro-legalization proponents rightly say that incurring such revenue could, by extension, retire the debt government agencies are now experiencing, and most of us would have to cede that point in the argument if it were followed by an asterisk that was footnoted with: “All other factors being equal or held constant.” The reason that such an asterisk would be necessary is that all other factors would not remain equal, or be held constant, in the aftermath of legalization, if the representatives, in our federal and state governments, were to remain constant.

If current federal and state coffers saw this boom of billions, they would increase their spending habits accordingly. It’s entirely possible that we could experience a boon for a couple quarters, or even a year, that resulted in surpluses and balanced budgets. If the representatives remained the same, however, they would find ways to allocate this “marijuana” money, until we eventually ended up in the same financial situation they are in today. Giving these representatives more money, to resolve the problem of their irresponsible spending, is equivalent to giving a heroin addict more heroin to cure their addiction.

Miron and Waldock’s final line also suggests that by legalizing drugs, “we would free up cops spending time currently arresting drug offenders.”  This implies that drug dealers simply made a career choice, at one point in their lives, to deal drugs, and if we legalize marijuana, cocaine, and heroin, this will prompt these dealers to simply move onto another career in, say, animal husbandry, dental assistance, or the numerous opportunities currently being offered at the Devry Institute.

Their final line suggests that those in the drug world are arbitrarily defined as criminals by a screwy law, and that there isn’t a violent subculture in the drug world that attracts violent people to it, and that legalization will change their nature in a manner that will remove them from the criminal logs, and free up finances and time for law enforcement agencies to pursue real criminals.

Drug dealers do not deal drugs based on a career choice, an ideological belief in the virtues of their drug of choice, or the fact that they found a niche in the marketplace that no one else in their area managed to capitalize on. They are dealers because it’s an easy way to make easy money. To suggest that the problem of drugs in America is more about antiquated, silly laws on the books, than the people getting arrested, is short-sighted.

Speaking to a Congressional subcommittee on drug policy in 1999, Donnie Marshall, then deputy administrator of DEA, said, “There is “a misconception that most drug-related crimes involve people who are looking for money to buy drugs. The fact is that most drug-related crimes are committed by people whose brains have been messed up with mood-altering drugs.”

Drug dealers may no longer be considered drug offenders, if the product they sell is eventually legalized, but that doesn’t mean that they will stop breaking the law, or eating up valuable time and resources that law enforcement agencies currently expend policing those that break current drug laws. All of the time, money, and resources currently being devoted to drug enforcement would have to be reallocated to all of the crimes that occur as a result of increased drug usage and addiction after legalization. Put bluntly, all of the gains that law enforcement agencies see as a result of legalization would be wiped off the books with all of the unforeseen consequences of legalization.

prohibitiom4) The Prohibition Argument. Some “legalize” proponents suggest that the current climate in America today, regarding crime and enforcement, is equivalent to America’s attempt to prohibit use of alcohol during Prohibition.

“Didn’t Prohibition result in more crime though?” drug legalization proponents will ask. Wasn’t Al Capone created by Prohibition, and weren’t numerous black markets created, and didn’t Prohibition result in widespread criminality that ended once we ended the “Great Experiment” of Prohibition? Weren’t homicides reduced, and wasn’t the reach and power of Organized crime syndicates, that sprang out of the market created by Prohibition, reduced once we ended it?

Most of the arguments that use Prohibition, and the Volstead Act, to bolster their argument for drug legalization, pick and choose specific statistics to bolster that argument, but they usually stay general when illustrating Prohibition’s general lack of success.

As a New York Times opinion piece, written by a professor of criminal justice at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government Mark Moore, in 1989, points out:

“Close analyses of the facts and their relevance, is required lest policy makers fall victim to the persuasive power of false analogies and are misled into imprudent judgments. Just such a danger is posed by those who casually invoke the ”lessons of Prohibition” to argue for the legalization of drugs.”

Alcohol consumption declined dramatically during Prohibition. Cirrhosis death rates for men were 29.5 per 100,000 in 1911 and 10.7 in 1929. Admissions to state mental hospitals for alcoholic psychosis declined from 10.1 per 100,000 in 1919 to 4.7 in 1928. (Editor’s note: Prohibition, or the Volstead Act, was in place between 1920 and 1933.)

Violent crime did not increase dramatically during Prohibition. Homicide rates rose dramatically from 1900 to 1910 but remained roughly constant during Prohibition’s 14 year rule. Organized crime may have become more visible and lurid during Prohibition, but it existed before and after.

Following the repeal of Prohibition, alcohol consumption increased. Today, alcohol is estimated to be the cause of more than 23,000 motor vehicle deaths and is implicated in more than half of the nation’s 20,000 homicides. In contrast, drugs have not yet been persuasively linked to highway fatalities and are believed to account for 10 percent to 20 percent of homicides.

Prohibition did not end alcohol use. What is remarkable, however, is that a relatively narrow political movement, relying on a relatively weak set of statutes, succeeded in reducing, by one-third, the consumption of a drug (alcohol) that had wide historical and popular sanction.

The real lesson of Prohibition is that the society can, indeed, make a dent in the consumption of drugs through laws. There is a price to be paid for such restrictions, of course. But for drugs such as heroin and cocaine, which are dangerous but currently largely unpopular, that price is small relative to the benefits.

5) The libertarian argument. If the most influential minds of the libertarian movement, John Stossel, Ron Paul, and the late William F. Buckley are/were for legalization, how can any self-respecting libertarian be against legalization?  If you listen to their arguments, you have to maintain the belief that if a person wants to destroy their life, they should have the freedom to do that.

I agree with this, in theory.  I agree that what you do in the privacy of your own home should be nobody else’s business.  I agree that we should pursue decriminalization.  Even in a ‘decriminalized’ state like Nebraska, I would not be against further decriminalization, but there is an arbitrary line in the sand to be drawn where moving towards full legalization begins to harm society.  There is a point where the user becomes the abuser, and he’s not only affecting himself, but those in his home, his neighborhood, and the rest of society.  If a user could use, and only destroy his life, then I would be all for it.  It’s difficult to be enthusiastic about the destruction of a human being, in this sense, but if we’re going to have a society built on individual freedom, there is a price to pay for it.

6) The Medical Marijuana Argument.   

An article from Police Chief Magazine listed an article in which the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) stated that the “Clear weight of the evidence is that smoked marijuana is harmful. No matter what medical condition has been studied, other drugs have been shown to be more effective in promoting health than smoked marijuana.” They also believe that many proponents of the use of medicinal marijuana are disingenuous, exploiting the sick in order to win a victory in their overall fight to legalize drugs. The DEA cites the fact that marijuana has been rejected as medicine by the American Medical Association, the American Glaucoma Society, The American Academy of Ophthalmology, the International Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies, and the American Cancer Society.{3}

What the DEA is basically saying is that the entire medical marijuana movement is a ruse that has preyed on a compassionate society that wants to do whatever it can to prevent any of her citizens from suffering.  It has been rejected as medicine by all the largely non-political groups listed above, and it has been rejected as the optimal agent in promoting greater physical health. Other studies have suggested that it does have some pain relieving agents, and that provided the movement a loophole through which some forms of legalization to those that received all of the various, and in some cases laughable, prescriptions.

Ramifications of Legalization

The one ramification that the pro-drug legalization crowd doesn’t factor into the equation is the influence that corporate America, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) would eventually have on these products were they legalized.

This is the realization that would probably have hip, young people, and hippies, pausing in their celebratory leap soon after legalization. For, if these controlled substances were legalized, as opposed to decriminalized, the government, and corporate America, would take control of the manufacturing process, the distribution, and the sale of the product. Most of this process would fall under the FDA’s purview. The compromise that led legislators to voting for legalization would surely require that the FDA set guidelines, and standards, so high that they could only “safely” and legally be handled by major corporations. The IRS would then step in and set taxes on production that are so high that the little guy could no longer compete. The little guy would probably still try to have a foot in the process, but they’d be hit by fines, and probable incarceration, that would result from selling the products without FDA and IRS stamps on them. These fines and incarcerations would no longer come from the DEA, or the various local law enforcement agencies, in other words, but the little guy would still be fined and incarcerated. It would just be other agencies complicating their sales with other charges.

At some point in the process, the influence of the FDA, the IRS, and corporate America, could push the demand to a point where the products are priced out of the budgets of the low income individuals that currently enjoy it, and only the affluent can afford it. It’s probable, at that point, that a black market would rise out of these ashes, and we would all be back in the exact same place we’re in today?

For those that claim that this piece provides evidence of a 180 degree turn from prior positions put forth in previous blogs, I can only write that if you live long enough, and read enough information on a given topic, you’ll inevitably find that you were wrong about a lot of things.  The empirical, and semi-empirical evidence I have found, and in some few cases witnessed, is simply too overwhelming compared to the adversarial reviews of the same information.  The adversarial reviews of the same information provide provocative strains of thought, based in equivocations and anecdotal information, that are appealing in the manner in which they counter traditional views on the subject.  This “What your parents don’t know” form of confirmation bias is very appealing to young people seeking to form an identity that stands in direct contrast to their parents, as it was to me.  As appealing as these arguments are, for all of the reasons outlined in this article, they don’t answer the questions regarding the destruction these controlled substances can have on the individual, the locales that legalize them, and society in general in a convincing, objective, and comprehensive manner.  Until that argument can be made, most of the quiet majority will probably remain quietly against total legalization.

Other reading: Most uses of medical marijuana wouldn’t pass FDA review, study finds

Here’s What Science Says About Medical Marijuana


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