Get Invoved with WCTM:
Do Our Drug Laws Make Sense?

Do Our Drug Laws Make Sense?

American politicians should ask themselves questions like these: Are we ready to admit that America’s policy of criminalizing some drug use is a failure, just as alcohol prohibition was a failure 80 years ago? Is the public willing to see the links between drug trade violence, like the 49 beheaded men and women found in Mexico last Sunday, and America’s “War on Drugs?” Do taxpayers want to continue to pay for the how-to-do-crime finishing schools our prisons have become, converting non-violent drug offenders into career criminals? Is it possible in our dysfunctional politics to look objectively at facts and then make rational cost-benefit analyses about criminalizing drug use? What is the net payoff for the huge resources America spends each year trying to prevent people from taking prohibited drugs? Should our criminal laws continue to nurture a street reality that gives huge financial rewards to the most vicious, to men willing to break the law and also break people?

There is no question that consciousness-changing drugs, both legal and forbidden, often have bad effects on the consumer and on society. Cigarettes cause cancer in smokers and in bystanders, but we tax tobacco consumption (and it has proven to reduce consumption) instead of outlawing the plant all together. The United States amended its Constitution in 1919 to prohibit alcohol; passionate advocates had convinced lawmakers that damages caused by “demon rum” required jerking away everyone’s freedom to drink. That didn’t stop alcohol consumption, but it made fortunes for bootleggers who broke laws to satisfy the public’s thirst. It also spawned violence as rival gangsters competed for the lucrative alcohol trade (see the movie “Chicago”). The “Prohibition of Liquor” amendment was repealed in 1933, and our strategy now is to outlaw certain actions, like driving when drunk, rather than criminalizing drinking itself.

Twenty years ago I was Chairman of Daytop Village, a New York-based “therapeutic community” for treating drug addicts. Daytop created and operated multiple rural campuses where its clients lived and worked for a year to break their addictions and reboot their lives. During my ten years on Daytop’s board, I heard many stories; in several, the the boy or girl got started on alcohol when he or she was about 11 years old, then progressed to harder drugs. By 15 or 16 the kids were stealing or selling themselves to get money for expensive, dangerous, impure illegal drugs – their lives had become centered around their addictions. They had a choice; those I saw left the streets and committed to getting “clean” by completing Daytop’s difficult physical and mental reprogramming. I asked Daytop graduates whether legalizing all drugs would be sensible, and their responses were mixed. I remember one young man saying that vigorous enforcement should continue if prosecutions saved even one person from a life of drug addiction. Others said they had ignored drug laws (including laws against kids drinking alcohol) when they started consuming alcohol, uppers, downers, marijuana and whatever before continuing on down the substance abuse ladder. Their fears came after moving into heroin and cocaine addictions and bad consequences, such as violence and possible jail time, had pushed them towards Daytop. Criminal penalties did not keep drugs off the market; it did make them more expensive, more impure, and more dangerous.

I cannot estimate the total resources America’s ongoing war on drugs consumes, but it is huge. Marijuana is most of the illegal drug trade, and I’m not the first person to argue that efforts to enface criminal laws for marijuana are a very poor use of time and energy. Our laws should treat marijuana like alcohol or tobacco – regulate and tax it. I would do the same for all drugs, but leave in criminal penalties for people who supply hard drugs to minors. Like some libertarians, I argue that criminal laws should only punish actions which hurt other people, not actions where a man directly hurts only himself. And legalizing, regulating and taxing drugs would punish bad guys by cutting financial rewards for risking violence and jail to deliver fixes to the waiting, monied American consumer.

Mexico has experienced 50,000 drug-related killings since President Calderon declared war on traffickers a few years ago. The gore and continuing displays of brutality have produced what psychologists call “learned helplessness” among some Mexicans – if you can’t solve the problem, ignore it. “Learned helplessness” is also a too-common response to evidence that human activities have changed, and are changing, climate and other natural systems in dangerous ways.

Image courtesy of Pavel Ševela [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


No comments yet.

Add a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Subscribe to Newsletter