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.