Twelve Reasons To Legalize Drugs

Reprinted from The Pragmatist, August 1988

There are no panaceas in the world but, for social afflictions, legalizing drugs comes possibly as close as any single policy could. Removing legal penalties from the production, sale and use of "controlled substances" would alleviate at least a dozen of our biggest social or political problems.

With proposals for legalization finally in the public eye, there might be a use for some sort of catalog listing the benefits of legalization. For advocates, it is an inventory of facts and arguments. For opponents, it is a record of the problems they might be helping to perpetuate.

The list is intended both as a resource for those wishing to participate in the legalization debate and as a starting point for those wishing to get deeper into it.

Are we ready to stop wringing our hands and start solving problems?

  1. Legalizing drugs would make our streets and homes safer.

    As Jeffrey Rogers Hummel notes ("Heroin: The Shocking Story," April 1988), estimates vary widely for the proportion of violent and property crime related to drugs. Forty percent is a midpoint figure. In an October 1987 survey by Wharton Econometrics for the U.S. Customs Service, the 739 police chiefs responding "blamed drugs for a fifth of the murders and rapes, a quarter car thefts, two-fifths of robberies and assaults and half the nation's burglaries and thefts."

    The theoretical and statistical links between drugs and crime are well established. In a 2 1/2-year study of Detroit crime, Lester P. Silverman, former associate director of the National Academy of Sciences' Assembly of Behavior and Social Sciences, found that a 10 percent increase in the price of heroin alone "produced an increase of 3.1 percent total property crimes in poor nonwhite neighborhoods." Armed robbery jumped 6.4 percent and simple assault by 5.6 percent throughout the city.

    The reasons are not difficult to understand. When law enforcement restricts the supply of drugs, the price of drugs rises. In 1984, a kilogram of cocaine worth $4000 in Colombia sold at wholesale for $30,000, and at retail in the United States for some $300,000. At the time a Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman noted, matter-of-factly, that the wholesale price doubled in six months "due to crackdowns on producers and smugglers in Columbia and the U.S." There are no statistics indicating the additional number of people killed or mugged thanks to the DEA's crackdown on cocaine.

    For heroin the factory-to-retail price differential is even greater. According to U.S. News & World report, in 1985 a gram of pure heroin in Pakistan cost $5.07, but it sold for $2425 on the street in America--nearly a five-hundredfold jump.

    The unhappy consequence is that crime also rises, for at least four reasons:

    Conversely, if and when drugs are legalized, their price will collapse and so will the sundry drug-related motivations to commit crime. Consumers will no longer need to steal to support their habits. A packet of cocaine will be as tempting to grab from its owner as a pack of cigarettes is today. And drug dealers will be pushed out of the retail market by known retailers. When was the last time we saw employees of Rite Aid pharmacies shoot it out with Thrift Drugs for a corner storefront?

    When drugs become legal, we will be able to sleep in our homes and walk the streets more safely. As one letter-writer to the Philadelphia Inquirer put it, "law-abiding citizens will be able to enjoy not living in fear of assault and burglary."

  2. It would put an end to prison overcrowding.

    Prison overcrowding is a serious and persistent problem. It makes the prison environment, violent and faceless to begin with, even more dangerous and dehumanizing.

    According to the 1988 Statistical Abstract of the United States, between 1979 and 1985 the number of people in federal and state prisons and local jails grew by 57.8 percent, nine time faster than the general population.

    Governments at all levels keep building more prisons, but the number of prisoners keeps outpacing the capacity to hold them. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons' 1985 Statistical Report, as of September 30 of that year federal institutions held 35,959 prisoners-41 percent over the rated prison capacity of 25,638. State prisons were 114 percent of capacity in 1986.

    Of 31,346 sentenced prisoners in federal institutions, those in for drug law violations were the largest single category, 9487. (A total of 4613 were in prison but not yet sentenced under various charges.)

    Legalizing drugs would immediately relieve the pressure on the prison system, since there would no longer be "drug offenders" to incarcerate. And, since many drug users would no longer need to commit violent or property crime to pay for their habits, there would be fewer "real" criminals to house in the first place. Instead of building more prisons, we could pocket the money and still be safer.

    Removing the 9487 drug inmates would leave 26,472. Of those, 7200 were in for assault, burglary, larceny-theft, or robbery. If the proportion of such crimes that is related to drugs is 40 percent, without drug laws another 2900 persons would never have made it to federal prison. The inmates who remained would be left in a less cruel, degrading environment. If we repealed the drug laws, we could eventually bring the prison population down comfortably below the prison's rated capacity.

  3. Drug legalization would free up police resources to fight crimes against people and property.

    The considerable police efforts now expended against drug activity and drug-related crime could be redirected toward protecting innocent people from those who would still commit crime in the absence of drug laws. The police could protect us more effectively, as it could focus resources on catching rapists, murderers and the remaining perpetrators of crimes against people and property.

  4. It would unclog the court system.

    If you are accused of a crime, it takes months to bring you to trial. Guilty or innocent, you must live with the anxiety of impending trial until the trial finally begins. The process is even more sluggish for civil proceedings.

    There simply aren't enough judges to handle the skyrocketing caseload. Because it would cut crime and eliminate drugs as a type of crime, legislation would wipe tens of thousands of cases off the court dockets across the continent, permitting the rest to move sooner and faster. Prosecutors would have more time to handle each case; judges could make more considered opinions.

    Improved efficiency at the lower levels would have a ripple effect on higher courts. Better decisions in the lower courts would yield fewer grounds for appeals, reduing the caseloads of appeals courts; and in any event there would be fewer cases to review in the first place.

  5. It would reduce official corruption.

    Drug-related police corruption takes one of two major forms. Police officers can offer drug dealers protection in their districts for a share of the profits (or demand a share under threat of exposure). Or they can seize dealer's merchandise for sale themselves.

    Seven current or former Philadelphia police officers were indicted May 31 on charges of falsifying records of money and drugs confiscated from dealers. During a house search, one man turned over $20,000 he had made from marijuana sales, but the officers gave him a "receipt" for $1870. Another dealer, reports The Inquirer, "told the grand jury he was charged with possession of five pounds of marijuana, although 11 pounds were found in his house."

    In Miami, 59 officers have been fired or suspended since 1985 for suspicion of wrongdoing. The police chief and investigators expect the number eventually to approach 100. As The Palm Beach Post reported, "That would mean about one in 100 officers on the thousand man force will have been tainted by one form of scandal or another."

    Most of the 59 have been accused of trafficking, possessing or using illegal drugs. In the biggest single case, 17 officers allegedly participated in a ring that stole $15 million worth of cocaine from dealers "and even traffic violators."

    What distinguishes the Miami scandal is that "Police are alleged to be drug traffickers themselves, not just protectors of criminals who are engaged in illegal activities," said The post. According to James Frye, a criminologist at American University in Washington, the gravity of the situation in Miami today is comparable to Prohibition-era Chicago in the 1920s and '30s.

    It is apt comparison. And the problem is not limited to Miami and Philadelphia. The astronomical profits from the illegal drug trade are a powerful incentive on the part of law enforcement agents to partake from the proceeds.

    Legalizing the drug trade outright would eliminate this inducement to corruption and help to clean up the police's image. Eliminating drug-related corruption cases would further reduce the strain on the courts, freeing judges and investigators to handle other cases more thoroughly and expeditiously.

  6. Legalization would save tax money.

    Efforts to interdict the drug traffic alone cost $6.2 billion in 1986, according to Wharton Econometrics of Bala Cynwyd, Pa. If we ad the cost of trying and incarcerating users, traffickers, and those who commit crime to pay for their drugs, the tab runs well above $10 billion.

    The crisis in inmate housing would disappear, saving taxpayers the expense of building more prisons in the future.

    As we've noted above, savings would be redirected toward better police protection and speedier judicial service. Or it could be converted into savings for taxpayers. Or the federal portion of the costs could be applied toward the budget deficit. For a change, it's a happy problem to ponder. But it takes legalization to make it possible.

  7. It would cripple organized crime.

    The Mafia (heroin), Jamaican gangs (crack), and the Medellin Cartel (cocaine) stand to lose billions in drug profits from legalization. On a per-capita basis, members of organized crime, particularly at the top, stand to lose the most from legalizing the drug trade.

    The underworld became big business in the United States when alcohol was prohibited. Few others would risk setting up the distribution networks, bribing officials or having to shoot up a policeman or competitor once in a while. When alcohol was re-legalized, reputable manufacturers took over. The risk and the high profits went out of the alcohol trade. Even if they wanted to keep control over it, the gangsters could not have targeted every manufacturer and every beer store.

    The profits from illegal alcohol were minuscule compared to the yield from today's illegal drugs. They are the underworld's last great, greatest, source of illegal income--dwarfing anything to be made fromgambling, prostitution or other vice.

    Legalizing drugs would knock out this huge prop from under organized crime. Smugglers and pushers would have to go aboveboard or go out of business. There simply wouldn't be enough other criminal endeavors to employ them all.

    If we are concerned about the influence of organized crime on government, industry and our own personal safety, we could strike no single more damaging blow against today's gangsters than to legalize drugs.

  8. Legal drugs would be safer. Legalization is a consumer protection issue.

    Because it is illegal, the drug trade today lacks many of the consumer safety features common to other markets: instruction sheets, warning labels, product quality control, manufacturer accountability. Driving it underground makes any product, including drugs, more dangerous than it needs to be.

    Nobody denies that currently illegal drugs can be dangerous. But so can aspirin, countless other over-the-counter drugs and common household items; yet the proven hazards of matches, modeling glue and lawn mowers are not used as reasons to make them all illegal.

    Practically anything can kill if used in certain ways. Like heroin, salt can make you sick or dead if you take enough of it. The point is to learn what the threshold is, and to keep below it. That many things can kill is not a reason to prohibit them all--it is a reason to find out how to handle products to provide the desired action safely. The same goes for drugs.

    Today's drug consumer literally doesn't know what he's buying. The stuff is so valuable that sellers have an incentive to "cut" (dilute) the product with foreign substances that look like the real thing. Most street heroin is only 3 to 6 percent pure; street cocaine, 10 to 15 percent.

    Since purity varies greatly, consumers can never be really sure how much to take to produce the desired effects. If you're used to 3 percent heroin and take a 5 percent dose, suddenly you've nearly doubled your intake.

    Manufacturers offering drugs on the open market would face different incentives than pushers. They rely on name-brand recognition to build market share, and on customer loyalty to maintain it. There would be a powerful incentive to provide a product of uniform quality: killing customers or losing them to competitors is not a proven way to success. Today, dealers can make so much off a single sale that the incentive to cultivate a clientele is weak. In fact, police persecution makes it imperative to move on, damn the customers.

    Pushers don't provide labels or instructions, let alone mailing addresses. The illegal nature of the business makes such things unnecessary or dangerous to the enterprise. After legalization, pharmaceutical companies could safely try to win each other's customers--or guard against liability suits--with better information and more reliable products.

    Even pure heroin on the open market would be safer than today's impure drugs. As long as customers know what they're getting and what it does, they can adjust their dosages to obtain the intended effect safely.

    Information is the best protection against the potential hazards of drugs or any other product. Legalizing drugs would promote consumer health and safety.

  9. Legalization would help stem the spread of AIDS and other diseases.

    As D.R. Blackmon notes ("Moral Deaths," June 1988), drug prohibition has helped propagate AIDS among intravenous drug users.

    Because IV drug users utilize hypodermic needles to inject heroin and other narcotics, access to needles is restricted. The dearth of needles leads users to share them. If one IV user has infected blood and some enters the needle as it is pulled out, the next user may shoot the infectious agent directly into his own bloodstream.

    Before the AIDS epidemic, this process was already known to spread other diseases, principally hepatitis B. Legalizing drugs would eliminate the motivation to restrict the sale of hypodermic needles. With needles cheap and freely available, the drug users would have little need to share them and risk acquiring someone else's virus.

    Despite the pain and mess involved, injection became popular because, as The Washington Times put it, "that's the way to get the biggest, longest high for the money." Inexpensive, legal heroin, on the other hand, would enable customers to get the same effect (using a greater amount) from more hygienic methods such as smoking or swallowing--cutting further into the use of needles and further slowing the spread of AIDS.

  10. Legalization would halt the erosion of other personal liberties.

    Hundreds of governments and corporations have used the alleged costs of drugs to begin testing their employees for drugs. Pennsylvania Rep. Robert Walker has embarked on a crusade to withhold the federal money carrot from any company or agency that doesn't guarantee a "drug-free workplace."

    The federal government has pressured foreign countries to grant access to bank records so it can check for "laundered" drug money. Because drug dealers handle lots of cash, domestic banks are now required to report cash deposits over $10,000 to the Internal Revenue Service for evidence of illicit profit.

    The concerns (excesses?) that led to all of these would disappear ipso facto with drg legalization. Before drugs became big business, investors could put their money in secure banks abroad without fear of harassment. Mom-and-pop stores could deposit their cash receipts unafraid that they might look like criminals.

    Nobody makes a test for urine levels of sugar or caffeine a requirement for employment or grounds for dismissal. However, were they declared illegal these would certainly become a lot riskier to use, and hence a possible target for testing "for the sake of our employees." Legalizing today's illegal drugs would make them safer, deflating the drive to test for drug use.

  11. It would stabilize foreign countries and make them safer to live in and travel to.

    The connection between drug traffickers and and guerrilla groups is fairly well documented (see "One More Reason," August 1987). South American revolutionaries have developed a symbiotic relationship with with coca growers and smugglers: the guerrillas protect the growers and smugglers in echange for cash to finance their subversive activities. in Peru, competing guerrilla groups, the Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru, fight for the lucrative right to represent coca farmers before drug traffickers.

    Traffickers themselves are well prepared to defend their crops against intruding government forces. A Peruvian military helicopter was destroyed with bazooka fire in March, 1987, and 23 police officers were killed. The following June, drug dealers attacked a camp of national guardsmen in Venezuela, killing 13.

    In Colombia, scores of police officers, more than 20 judges, two newspaper editors, the attorney general and the justice minister have been killed in that country's war against cocaine traffickers. Two supreme court justices, including the court president, have resigned following death threats. The Palace of Justice was sacked in 1985 as guerrillas destroyed the records of dozens of drug dealers.

    "This looks like Beirut," said the mayor of Medellin, Colombia, after a bomb ripped apart a city block where the reputed head of the Medellin Cartel lives. It "is a waning of where the madness of the violence that afflicts us can bring us."

    Legalizing the international drug trade would affect organized crime and subversion abroad much as it would in the United States. A major source for guerrilla funding would disappear. So would the motive for kidnapping or assassinating officials and private individuals. As in the United States, ordinary Colombians and Peruvians once again could walk the streets and travel the roads without fear of drug-related violence. Countries would no longer be paralyzed by smugglers.

  12. Legalization would repair U.S. relations with other countries and curtail anti-American sentiment around the world.

    Legalizing the drug trade would remove some of the reasons to hate America and deprive local politicians of the chance to exploit them. The U.S. would have a new opportunity to repair its reputation in an atmosphere of mutual respect.