The current policy of our state (and all other states as well) is total prohibition on the sale and possession of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and other recreational drugs. A huge percentage of all arrests in the United States are for marijuana related crimes, and total expenditures for federal, state, and local government for conducting the drug war exceed $30 billion a year (source: http://norml.org/pdf_files/NORML_US_Domestic_Marijuana_Production.pdf). Does our current policy of prohibition make sense? Virtually everyone agrees that the drug war has been a miserable failure, and yet it continues.
Let’s examine the current policy of prohibition. Let’s say that somehow we could make the prohibition policy effective beyond our wildest dreams; let’s say we really could prevent 95% of the drugs currently used by Americans from entering the country or being produced. What would things be like?
What would happen would be exactly what happened with alcohol prohibtion, but far worse (because the government was never able to shut down 95% of the alcohol production). The price of drugs would skyrocket under such circumstances (because psychoactive drugs are an inelastic good) and addicts would have to steal huge amounts from all of us in order to support their habits. The courts, police, and jails would be clogged dealing with this problem (even more so than during alcohol prohibition because alcohol was much cheaper than these drugs would be). Anybody supplying the need for drugs would be able to make fantastic sums of money and would be willing to engage in violence to protect their interests (just as occurred during alcohol prohibition). Our criminal justice and political system would become corrupt (just as it did during prohibition) when these billionaire drug lords decide to start bribing our public officials.
To those of you who favor the current policy of prohibition, I’d like you to honestly ask yourself: what exactly do you anticipate is going to happen that is going to end the drug problem? The more successful prohibition is at reducing the supply of drugs, the worse the problems caused by the drugs become. The only reason the current policy of prohibition persists is because it is so ineffective at stopping the flow of drugs (we wouldn’t be able to stand living here if it were actually effective!).
The problems we are experiencing with drug prohibition are exactly the same as the problems the United States experienced with alcohol prohibition in the 1920s: a corrupt criminal justice system, the rise of extremely wealthy organized criminals who supply the need, an unnecessary drain on the taxpayers, and the violence that accompanies any attempt to supply something in an illegal market. The solution to those problems is exactly the same as with alcohol prohibition: we need to consider legalizing these drugs.
Now, no one knows for sure what would happen if these drugs were legalized, so the policy should proceed slowly to determine its effects, but I would recommend starting by legalizing marijuana. We could legalize marijuana on a provisional basis: for example, we could state that the policy must be re-examined after two years to see if we want it to continue. It would be the easiest thing in the world to revert to the current policy of prohibition if we find that legalization is not working out. However, shouldn’t we at least see if we really need these laws before we continue spending millions in our state to catch, prosecute, and jail marijuana offenders?
You object: but everyone will be a bunch of drugged out zombies if we legalize drugs. That is possible, and that’s why any policy change should proceed slowly. However, there are good reasons to suppose that legalizing marijuana would not result in greatly increased drug abuse. First, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic have marijuana legalized now and they don’t have any substantial problems with it. In fact, the Netherlands has lower levels of marijuana use among its teenagers than the United States has (source: http://www.drugpolicy.org/marijuana/factsmyths/). The second reason to suppose we would not become a nation of drug addicts is that for most of United States’ history, all drugs were legal! In 1900, a five year old could walk into any drug store in America and purchase heroin. And yet, we did not become a nation of drug addicts. Again, all I’m suggesting is that we try legalization for a specific time period to see if there are any problems, and then we can easily revert to our current policy if there are.
Regardless of the practical benefits of legalizing drugs, the chief reason for legalizing them is philosophical. Among a free people, adult citizens own their own bodies, and it is quite simply none of the government’s business what they put into that body. If the government wants to restrict drug use among children, that is within its legitimate purview, however the government of a free people should never tell adults what they may or may not consume. Note that the Founding Fathers would be in unanimous agreement that the government should not dictate to adult citizens what they may put into their bodies, and many of them (e.g., Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Monroe) were themselves marijuana smokers.
The Wall Street Journal is in substantial agreement with the position outlined here. The Economist magazine also agrees with our position and they agreed with it 20 years ago. Newsweek favors legalization, too. Penn & Teller have an episode of their television show (NSFW please do not click if easily offended)on Showtime that argues for legalization on both pragmatic and philosophical grounds.
Here is Nobel Prize Winner Milton Friedman offering both pragmatic and philosophical arguments why drug prohibition is a bad idea. It is the best presentation of the issue I have seen, and also asks the important question “What does it mean to live in a free society?” which unfortunately has all but dropped out of our political discussions:
Here is a brief video of John Stossel explaining why drug prohibition is a bad idea: