Thursday, June 05, 2008

mexican rx -- III

The model most discussed on the internet to resolve the drug problem is the legalization of drugs. (There may be some connection, but that is a topic for another day.)

This is the point where someone trots out on stage the hoary example of prohibition. The act is usually introduced as: “The Lessons We Learned from Prohibition.” Apparently, Prohibition is a one-act pony because the lesson we learned is -– don’t. The Lessons of Prohibition seem to be first cousin to What We Learned in Vietnam and What I Learned from Elizabeth Taylor about Marriage.

What we have learned from Prohibition is far more complex than “Just Say No.” Recent studies have shown that there were positive benefits derived from Prohibition. The most obvious is the United States went from a cheap booze country, where a large portion of the population spent a good portion of the day falling-down drunk only to sober up enough to get falling-down drunk at night, to a country that has one of the lowest alcohol consumption rates in the western world.

But there was a cost. And it was a cost that Americans no longer wanted to endure. At first, they did not want to endure the problems caused by alcohol. Then they did not want to endure the burgeoning police state required to enforce Prohibition. Even worse, the reform-minded busy bodies learned a lesson: it is feels good to have the power of government to regulate personal choices –- as long as you get to choose what is being regulated. (We will come back to the "r" word.)

As far as I know, no one has seriously talked about legalizing the sale of all drugs to all comers. And we all know that any good proposal can quickly turn into a lions meet hyenas confrontation once details come into play. For now, we will keep this on a theoretical plane and talk about legalization as a concept.

Would there be benefits? Of course, there would. If drugs were legal, there would be no economic need for cartels or drug enforcement officials or any of the restricted freedoms related to drug enforcement. People could choose to be as good as they want to be.

Of course, it is not all wine and roses. There are some costs. And some high ones. In my work as a criminal defense attorney and as a volunteer with the Salvation Army, I have seen – and still see –- what drugs do to lives.

The physical costs are the most obvious. I have seen young men and women in their 20s who looked as if they were in their 50s or 60s. But the social costs are high, as well. Every addict is a lost life –- lost to themselves, to their families, to their communities.

No one knows whether drug usage would increase with legalization. The experience of The Netherlands is that it will.

We libertarians (and our utilitarianist allies) need to be willing to pay the social costs that will accompany legalization. (At this point, I will confess that I do not believe that any real form of legalization will occur in the United States. Even if such a proposal could be entertained in this populist era, it would founder on the reef of details. But it is fun to pretend we are all back in college sitting in the dorm hallway at 2 in the morning discussing Big Ideas and fixing the mess created by the older generation. I guess that would now be: us.)

Here are some obvious social costs –- besides the danger of increased drug usage. Someone needs to pick up the bill for drug treatment programs. There are three obvious sources. First, private health insurance. Not every drug addict is homeless and jobless. If there are additional demands for drug treatment programs, private health insurance premiums will increase. Second, public health costs will increase. Third, those of us involved with private charities (such as, the Salvation Army) had better get ready for additional fund raising duties.

This is the point where someone will point out, I support legalization, but only if it is regulated and taxed by government. To that I respond, why would anyone want to give the Mafia’s power to government? If government regulates drugs, there will still be a market for organized drug cartels –- unless governments are going to sell illegal drugs at less-than-cost prices. That prospect is more than disturbing.

I am not an advocate of governmental power –- especially when it comes to economic or social engineering. As a rule, government makes every situation worse through the rule of unintended consequences.

The monopolistic power of government should be used cautiously, but it has legitimate uses. The trick is knowing the difference.
  • Governments often pass “good” laws that most citizens choose to ignore – like speed laws.
  • When racial discrimination became a moral embarrassment, Congress passed comprehensive laws against it. Discrimination did not disappear, but it receded.
  • Slavery was such a moral cancer that the only option was for one part of the nation to rise up against the other to outlaw slavery and to preserve the Union.

I doubt that the drug issue falls precisely into any of the three examples listed above. But I am certain that no matter how much we hate the results of drug abuse, a law is not going to correct the situation.

If we maintain the war mentality, the issue will not be resolved – and much bad can (and will) come of it. That leaves legalization as the best option and with some of the worst possible results.

Here is the dilemma for Mexico. America needs to make up its collective mind about how it wants to treat drugs. Until Americans are willing to make the hard decisions, Mexicans cannot make sound policy decisions.

Our decisions are tearing apart a country that does not need any excuse for more violence. It simply is not fair to my new neighbors.


Babs said...

Without getting into a diatribe, MOST of the drugs going to the US come from Columbia and other countries - Mexico being partly the conduit for transportation. This battle has been going on since the 60's when managing a State Dept contract for drug interdiction brought me to Mexico for the first time. If the US wanted to stop the flow of drugs into the US it could have done it then or now.........instead two more governmental agencies were formed - DEA and Border Patrol. Drugs are big business for the government too. I also managed a top secret contract related to drug interdiction which was the maintenance of AWAK planes which can monitor and even get the # of the ship that the drugs are being loaded onto in South America. It's a travesty.

Islaholic Trixie said...

Great write ups Steve. Being a landlord in the US I have kicked out renters for drugs. Being a trucking business owner I have had to fire employees for drug use. I have watched more lives destroyed over drugs. Can't say I have seen one life changed for the better over drugs!!
As babs said, "It's a travesty."

Steve Cotton said...

Babs -- We should sit down one day and discuss our respective backgrounds.

Islaholic Trixie -- Thank you for the very kind comments. Some of the former addicts I work with at the Salvation Army are adamantly opposed to any form of legalization. They fear that others will take the course they did and become users. They usually change their minds when I point out that the fact that the drugs they used were illegal did not stop them from using.

My heart goes out to addicts of every kind. I am just not convinced that declaring a substance illegal and then sending in the troops is the best way to address the problem. I just wish Americans could take a more serious look at the issue.

Beth said...

I don't understand why Mexico has to wait on the US before it can make sound decisions. That seems akin to me waiting to decide where to go to lunch until you decide whether you even want lunch. I don't really know much about the topic you are blogging about, but it does strike me as highly patriarchal to presuppose if the US did X, that Mexico would be freed to make the right choices for its people. Could you speak more to your last two paragraphs?

Steve Cotton said...

Beth -- Your point is an extremely good one. And I thought about expanding my point when I posted, but I will do that now.

Mexico has a drug war taking place on its soil primarily because American noses (and I should add Canadian and European noses) lust for drugs.

Mexico does not have a drug problem (even though that is changing). What it has are drug cartels that act as shipping paths for drugs heading from South America to the United States, Canada, and Europe. The drug cartels will go away only if there is no need for their illegal services.

No drug cartels, no drug war, and Mexico can get back to reforming its other institutions.

From that perspective, the suggestion that the United States needs to take action first is not paternalistic. The United States is where the problem is, and all other aspects of this issue flows from it.

Of course, Mexico, on its own, could decide that it was not going to battle the cartels and give up its dream of cleaning up governmental corruption. That truly would be a sad decision.

Mexico has been independent for less than 200 years. It has the opportunity for the first time in its history to experience an efficient democratic-based government. It would be a shame to see it all thrown away over the issue of American drug usage.

Steve Cotton said...

Nice post, Jennifer. The arrow is smack dab in the center of the bull's eye.

Babs said...

Mexico has been a democracy for less then 100 years! Even though the culture is 10's of thousands of years old!

Babs said...

Steve, we will and I look forward to that meeting, wherever!

Steve Cotton said...

Babs -- It may even be accurate to say that Mexico has had a mature democracy for only about a decade. It certainly had democratic forms of government prior to that. But the last decade has shown that Mexico can be an example to the rest of the world -- whenever it wants.

Hollito said...


it was interesting to read your thoughts about the drug problem.

Because of your blog entries I started to think about it and tried to find a solution - but I failed.

Whatever will be done, may be the false thing.

Thinking about that matter, I remembered something I experienced when I was in Sweden (worked there for a few weeks installing german machinery in a paper factory):

In Sweden, alcohol is really expensive and the shops selling alcohol are cross-barred (is this the right term?) like jeweler shops in other countries.

We got an invitation from one of the workers in the paper factory to come to a party. That was nice, because we did not have much contact to other people around there, we just worked 10 hours per day to get things done.

When we arrived at the party, I could not believe my eyes:
The whole house was FILLED with alcohol, not beer or wine, only the "harder" stuff. Most people (even the women) on the party were really drunk when we arrived. This party was really more "hefty" than any other I have seen in Germany, even you can buy alcohol here much cheaper and without any problems.

To cut it short: Laws and regulations are one thing, but people will find a way to get around this things - in Sweden people told me, that nearly everyone has his own distillery in the barn or basement...

If somehow a way to cut off the drug transports through MX would be found - there would be another way to get the drugs into the USA. :-(
A big problem in this matter IMHO is, that MX is corrupt down to the bones - I am saying this as someone who really likes MX, but this is reality. :-( So the first thing to stop drug transports through MX would be to fight corruption. But, to be true, I do not have any hope this will happen.

Steve Cotton said...

hollito -- You are correct: the drug issue is a very complex problem, and trying to come up with a solution will be difficult. I have started writing a summary, but I keep running into issues similar to the one you described. Maybe tomorrow. Of course, more analysis than solution.

Anonymous said...

Considering how much money and effort the USA and Mexico and other "cooperative" countries spend fighting the drug war, and then how cheap, plentiful, and easy-to-obtain drugs are in the USA, it's a really valid question how much more drug use and addiction might rise with legalization. Perhaps an even better question would be how much the balance of problems might tilt to worse. Certainly if you legalized drugs, you would immediately bankrupt the drug cartels and stop the associated violence. This would have to be counted as a huge good, and would do more to ensure peace and democracy in Latin America than billions of dollars in drug eradication funds, and endless foreign policy exercises in certifying governments as cooperative in the war on drugs.

Even taxed, its highly likely that drugs,once legalized, would largely flow through legal channels. Look at alcohol, a highly taxed product. When was the last time someone offered to sell you moonshine? Sure it exists, but its a tiny problem, a problem the government views more as a loss of tax than anything else.

In terms of drug usage, yes it would probably rise under a freedom regime. So the question is how much would self-destructive, harmful use rise? We don't, of course, know the answer to that question, but it would likely rise somewhat. However, with an associated tax stream, which we currently lack, and the "peace dividend" from the end of the war on drugs, we'd likely have a lot more funds to spend on addiction treatment, education, and other more effective countermeasures. And we'd also likely suffer fewer accidental overdoses, which typically stem from inconsistent drug potency, and lower transmission of disease from things like AIDS as clean syringes would be cheap and plentiful.

Too often the debate ends up being argued between maintaining the status quo on one hand, and the horrors of abuse and addiction that would supposedly come from legalization. Well, we already have the horrors of abuse and addiction, despite an increasingly draconian set of penalties for drug possession and the draconian war on drugs itself. And we have hundreds of thousands of otherwise peaceful citizens wasting away in jails at a cost of $35K to $40K per capita per annum for having possessed or sold drugs. This too has to be counted as a high cost, both human and fiscal, of the status quo.

Frankly, it's really hard to make a rational argument that the status quo is somehow better than the alternatives.

Steve, thanks for your insights on this important matter.

Kim G
Boston, MA

Steve Cotton said...

Kim -- Thanks for the thoughtful response. You have added some common sense touches to this debate. But, then, you always do. The exchanges between you and Michael are a pleasure to read. One of these days I may run into you down south.