Most of us can agree that current drug policy in North America is a disaster. The global war on drugs can't be won. Locking up addicts in jail is both futile and inhumane. We're squandering billions on policies that hurt people and don't work.
So it's no wonder that the idea of legalizing drugs is more popular than ever. Half of all Americans believe marijuana should be legalized, according to a recent survey. The California Medical Association has come out in favour of it. Social progressives aren't the only ones who argue that drug laws should be repealed. Libertarians think so, too. As Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs puts it, "Look at the money that governments make off alcohol. You know, perhaps instead of organized crime getting the profits [from marijuana] the federal government could generate revenues from it." Neil Reynolds, writing in this space the other day, argued that we should legalize most hard drugs as well. After all, drugs can't possibly hurt society as much as prohibition does.
These arguments drive Mark Kleiman crazy. Mr. Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA, knows as much about this subject as anyone on the planet. His politics are liberal. He, too, thinks our current policies are a disaster. But he also thinks the legalizers are just as misguided as the hard-liners with their fantasies of a drug-free world. His information-packed new book, Drugs and Drug Policy, is full of inconvenient facts that demolish both the hawks and the doves.
Mr. Kleiman maintains that legalizing drugs would create far bigger problems than the legalizers think. Consider alcohol and tobacco, which are heavily taxed and regulated, and are the focus of massive public health campaigns. Even so, both are associated with major public health disasters. Alcohol alone kills more than 100,000 people a year in North America – more than all illicit drugs combined.
Both the booze industry and the tobacco industry depend on heavy users for their profits. That's because those people account for the lion's share of consumption. The alcohol industry, for example, gets 80 per cent of its revenue from people with drinking problems. As Mr. Kleiman says, "To the consumer, developing a bad habit is bad news. To the marketing executive, it's the whole point of the exercise." It's not hard to imagine what full-scale commercialization would do to marijuana. "It would vastly increase the cannabis-abuse problem by giving the marketing geniuses who have done such a fine job persuading children to smoke tobacco, drink to excess and supersize themselves with junk food another vice to foster."
Then there's basic economics. When you legalize a prohibited substance, the price usually drops. The result is a big increase in consumption, along with problem users. (If you try to keep the price high through taxes, you'll just create a big black market.) And although marijuana on the whole is probably less destructive than alcohol, it is by no means harmless. Just ask the parents of any 15-year-old who's developed a taste for weed.
Mr. Kleiman points out that, in many ways, marijuana is a red herring in the drug debate. Although it accounts for the vast majority of illegal drug users, it accounts for only a fraction of illegal revenue. He favours a limited form of legalization that would allow individuals and small non-profit groups to grow and trade their own.
But marijuana isn't our real drug problem. Legalizing it would have very little impact on the global drug trade or on violent crime. As for cocaine and heroin, if we ever did legalize them (unlikely, given public sentiment), we could well discover we'd just doubled the size of the market without driving the crime rate down.
If the only alternative to the war on drugs were legalization, then legalization would look good. But there are many other things we can do to minimize the impact of illegal drugs. We can have law enforcement focus on public safety, not busting users. We can adopt promising new programs that get addicts on parole to kick the habit. We can do far more to intervene early with people who have addiction problems. It's even possible that we could have most of the benefits of prohibition at a smaller fraction of the cost – once we stop yelling at each other.