The idea of reexamining my thoughts on the war on drugs came to me while I was watching America's Most Wanted and heard someone mention that 90% of the crimes in their district were drug related. Now, first let me say that I don't doubt it. There is no doubt a need for money, be it for drugs, gambling, or even food, will drive people to crimes. Nor do I doubt that drugs, just like alcohol, will cause people to lose their inhibitions, and also exercise somewhat lax judgment, which can lead to more crime as well.
On the other hand, drug laws add to crime as well. During prohibition, brewers would fight over turf, or commit acts of violence against those who did not pay their debts. Now that alcohol is legal, they do not use violence, but use the same legal mechanisms as other businesses. And the same is now true of the drug market. Gangs fight over turf and debts because there is no legal mechanism. Also, just by being criminal, the drug business attracts criminals, and thus people who are more prone to violence than others.
Now, I have made no secret of my position, I favor eliminating the war on drugs. In fact, I favor eliminating all restrictions on purchase of prescription medications, illicit drugs, alcohol, tobacco, guns, everything. But that is not my point here. What I want to discuss here is how quite reasonable people, who agree on all the facts, can draw completely different conclusions. How sincere, well meaning people can look at the same facts, yet some come up with my conclusion, and others come up with arguments for continuing the war on drugs.
For purposes of this argument, I will ignore the ethical angle. We won't get into the question whether the government should be preventing people from doing things they want to, whether "victimless crimes" should be made illegal. I personally find it absurd that I can give the government power to arrest me for doing what I want to do, when no one else's rights are violated, but that is not our question here. We will also ignore the question of whether imprisonment of users is actually beneficial to them, whether it is better to be a drug addict or a convict.
All I am asking here is the utilitarian question. If we want to achieve the best results for society as a whole, what would be the ideal drug policy?
Actually, to make the argument even more fair, I will not contest one of the more contentious subjects, the harm done by drug use. Of course, no one is disputing that long term chronic drug addiction is dangerous, but for purposes of this argument, let us just assume that any drug use is harmful, even the most casual use of the least addictive drugs. Doubtless almost no one thinks that infrequent smoking of marijuana, for example, is a major danger, but for purposes of our argument, let us equate all drug usage, and assume that smoking a single joint is equivalent to a life long heroin habit. It is an extreme position, but it helps make the debate more equitable, as it cuts very strongly against any bias I might have.
Now, granting all that, why would I argue that we should legalize, or, better, decriminalize, drugs?
My belief is rather simple. Few people are stopped from using drugs by the law. Those who use drugs now are probably about 90% or more of those who would use drugs were they legal. Marijuana surely would have the most appeal to casual users, but it also has the least severe penalties, so even in the case of marijuana, most people who would use it probably do use it now, as the punishment for possession is very mild.
Since removing the current prohibitions would not increase use, it would not increase, or would only slightly increase, the net harm from usage. On the other hand, there are two huge benefits to society.
First, removing the criminal element, and the associated risk premiums, would reduce prices. This would allow those who are addicted to purchase their needed drugs at a much lower price. Even if that causes their habit to increase, the decrease would be so dramatic that in the long run they would need only a fraction of the money to support their habits*, cutting down the amount of crime they would need to commit to support themselves. I grant it sounds horrible to say "they won't need as much crime", but we have to be realistic. Junkies who steal will steal whether it is legal or illegal. If it is legal, they will need to steal less, so crime will decrease.
The second benefit is the loss of the entire criminal infrastructure surrounding drugs. Not only will this mean the end to drug related shootings, it will also break apart criminal organizations in South America, Southeast Asia and elsewhere that are now supporting terrorists and spreading crime world wise. Also it will break up some of the criminal gangs taking shape in our cities, cutting off their primary source of wealth. Finally, it will make drug dealing no longer an option of inner city children. Some will probably still become criminals, but without the lure of easy drug money, a future stealing cars or robbing liquor stores is a lot less attractive, which will make a lot fewer children opt for a life of crime.
For many years, I could not understand any opposition to this position. It seemed so self-evident I could not understand why, on utilitarian grounds alone, anyone could oppose the position I had adopted. And the arguments I heard against it made it no more clear. Most people really did not voice a coherent argument for continuing the war on drugs. Often it was nothing more than "we have done it for a long time, we can't just give up" or "drugs are bad". Sadly, the side promoting the war on drugs really lacked a good spokesman. Even Rush did a relatively poor job of arguing the merits of his side.
So, I had to sit down and think it through on my own. I had to ask myself, starting from the same facts, what could happen that would make it a good idea to continue the war on drugs? And, as far as I can tell, there are two assumptions which would make my position the wrong one, and would argue in favor of a continued war on drugs.
The first would be if my assumptions are wrong about the likelihood of increased usage. If the laws we have really do keep most people from using drugs, then we would have to think about legalization differently. Not that it would necessarily mean we should continue the war, only that we would need to balance different factors. For example, if legalizing would increase drug use 15%, rather than 10%, it would not greatly change my argument. On the other hand, if drug use would increase fivefold, that would make my argument much weaker, as the decreased crime from the elimination of dealers would be offset by both increased crime from five times the addicts, as well as the societal harm from a massive growth in drug addiction.
The second argument is what I think many were trying to say, but saying very badly. Not that I blame them,it is not easy to make clear, but I still think someone needs to make this argument a bit better.
The second argument is that the social costs of drug use are greater and of a different nature than I assume. Instead of being relatively constant, the current war on drugs, instead of simply periodically arresting addicts, actually keeps those addicts in line to some degree. Were the war to end, they would behave in even worse ways, causing more harm to society. And, if we argue the point above as well, not only will increasing numbers of drug users add to normal crime, but without the war on drugs to keep them in check, these new users will behave in the same destructive ways. Only by keeping up the war on drugs can we manage to keep these drug addicts in line and in some way mitigate the harm to society.
Those two are the only real arguments I can see for continuing the war. Though there is one other variant on the first. Even if you do not assume the number of users will increase dramatically, there is one more argument for continuing the war. That is if you believe that continuing the war will, in the foreseeable future, result in the end of drug use entirely. If there is the chance of completely eliminating drug use,t hen continuing the war makes sense, as that result will make moot all other arguments.
However, I don't think anyone truly believes in that possibility, at least not any longer. Perhaps at some point that was the rationale, but time and experience surely has shown we are not going to eliminate drug use. Not through jail and not through "treatment". Drug use has too much appeal to some percentage of the population for us to eliminate it.
So the arguments that remain are that the number of users will increase too much or that the drug addicts themselves will be even more of a problem should we lose what control the war on drugs gives us, or a combination of the two.
As should be clear, I still do not believe in either. My experience with drug users, even addicts, tells me the law does little to keep them in check regarding their behavior. And just as there was not a huge wave of trendy sodomy following the Lawrence decision, I doubt removing the penalties for drug use will result in massive waves of first time drug use. But, now that I can at least understand why others would see things differently, I think I am better able to argue this on the merits, rather than spending most of my time trying to figure out why no one else can see my point.
It may sound silly, but I don't think I am alone here. A lot of our disputes sound like two people completely shocked that someone could disagree with them. So perhaps we would all be better off if we had to spend some time explaining the opposition's arguments. It certainly couldn't hurt. And, in some ways, it makes your own arguments better.
I know, while it didn't change my beliefs, thinking through the other side's arguments made me see my own much more clearly.
* Cheaper drugs will at first allow them to develop a bigger habit, but there is a biological limit to that. Opiate allow a very great tolerance to develop, but even there there is an upper limit to what a body can accept. For other drugs toxicity is more fixed and will put a cap long before their increased habit compensates for the dramatic decrease in cost. One has only to look at pre- and post-Prohibition costs of alcohol to see what a dramatic cost decrease we are likely to see. And with drugs the price change should be even more dramatic, as most alcohol could be produced locally with local ingredients. Excepting some small scale marijuana growing, and the lab production of methamphetamines, MDMA, and some less popular drugs such as GHB, almost all drugs have to be imported, passing through many hands and adding huge risk premiums. So making them legal would result in even more dramatic decreases in cost.
Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/12/06.