April 22, 2008 | Commentary on Crime
Today, Sullum and Stimson begin their Dust-Up by comparing
drug decriminalization and legalization. Later in the week, they'll
discuss drug-related violence, federal raids of marijuana
dispensaries and more.
Question: What's the difference between drug legalization and decriminalization? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
The main disadvantage of "drug legalization" is the implication
that the natural course of things, the default position, is for the
government to dictate which substances people may put into their
bodies. In 1933, when Americans were once again free to
manufacture, buy and sell alcoholic beverages, people did not say
that alcohol had been "legalized"; they said that Prohibition, an
invasive, disastrous attempt to get between people and their
intoxicants, had been repealed.
Americans understood the problems associated with alcohol abuse, but they also understood the problems associated with Prohibition, which included violence, organized crime, official corruption, the erosion of civil liberties, disrespect for the law, and injuries and deaths caused by tainted black-market booze. They decided that these unintended side effects far outweighed whatever harm Prohibition prevented by discouraging drinking. The same sort of analysis today would show that the harm caused by drug prohibition far outweighs the harm it prevents, even without taking into account the value to each individual of being sovereign over his own body and mind.
The problem is that our current prohibition has been in place for so long -- more than 90 years, compared with the 13 that the national alcohol ban lasted -- that people have trouble distinguishing between the costs of drug use and the costs of drug prohibition. Hence, they talk about "drug-related violence" when they should be talking about "prohibition-related violence"; they treat deaths caused by the unpredictable purity of black-market intoxicants as an inevitable consequence of drug use; they do not pause to consider why heroin addicts steal to support their habits much more often than alcoholics do; and they speak of drug users subsidizing terrorism, when in fact it's the government that subsidizes terrorism through the price-support program known as the war on drugs.
"Decriminalization" does not address any of these problems. As it's generally understood in this country, decriminalization amounts to treating users leniently while continuing to arrest, prosecute and imprison producers and sellers. In the states that have "decriminalized" marijuana, for example, possession of small quantities for personal use is generally a citable offense punishable by a modest fine. That policy is certainly an improvement over arresting pot smokers and putting them in jail, but it leaves the black market, with all its attendant problems, in place. What we call decriminalization is not even as tolerant a policy as the U.S. had during alcohol prohibition, when mere possession and consumption of alcoholic beverages, as opposed to manufacture and distribution, were not subject to punishment at all.
I also have a problem with the moral justification for decriminalizing drug use while continuing to imprison people for drug sales. If drug use is the evil the government is trying to prevent, why go easy on those who commit the offense but throw the book at those who merely assist them? Isn't that like punishing someone who sells a gun to a murderer more severely than the murderer himself? This inconsistency in the treatment of sellers versus buyers, which is widely practiced and supported by drug warriors, is a clue to the fact that the government is trying to prohibit something it has no business prohibiting.
Jacob Sullum, a senior editor at Reason magazine and a nationally syndicated columnist, is the author of "Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use."
Two points: First, there is no difference between decriminalization and legalization. Second, whichever term you want to use, it's a bad idea.
Heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana are illegal because they are dangerous, addictive, destructive drugs that ruin lives. You cannot seriously argue that there is no difference between a person who has a glass of wine with dinner and a person who uses heroin, coke, meth or marijuana everyday. The wine drinker is, arguably, improving his health -- if you believe the current medical literature -- but the drug addict is destroying his mind. That affects all of us.
Certain laws are necessary for the public good. Keeping dangerous narcotics illegal is one of them. It is no secret that most criminals test positive for illegal drugs when they are arrested. These drugs alter the mind and carry long-term negative consequences. Defense attorneys, prosecutors, police officers and judges are not surprised to see the child abuser or domestic violence defendant test positive for coke or meth. Why? Because these drugs contribute to and cause erratic, volatile behavior; the scientific literature is clear on that. So while you say these people are simply exercising their "sovereignty," their criminal behavior, often caused by drug abuse, hurts everyone.
An example: I have defended Navy sailors who were charged with criminal drug offenses. These men didn't just hurt themselves; they put their fellow sailors' lives in danger, even when they were "sober," because of the long-term effects of these drugs on their minds and their performance.
And there is more to the story: When addicts are on a naval vessel, it weakens our national defense and makes all of us less safe. Imagine that across our economy: school bus drivers, police officers, machinery operators and so on. Drug legalization would only increase the risk that drug users, even during the times when they are sober, will act erratically or inattentively because their drug use has warped their minds and dulled their abilities. Implementing your philosophical theory of radical autonomy, Jacob, would have disastrous unintended consequences.
From 1982 to 1992, illegal drug use by young adults dropped more than 50%. Why? In 1982, President Reagan rolled out his national drug strategy. It consisted of five components: international cooperation, research, strengthened law enforcement, treatment and rehabilitation, and prevention and education. Difficult problems like the scourge of illegal drugs require a comprehensive approach, not a hands-off one that's simplistic. Why try a dangerous alternative when we know what works?
Jacob, you are right that drug laws are enforced unevenly, but that does not mean that we should repeal all drug laws. All criminal laws (driving under the influence, rape, fraud and so on) are enforced unevenly across the states. Just because a convicted rapist in one state serves six years and a rapist in another is not even charged or gets probation does not mean we should repeal all rape laws.
And finally, there is the issue of morality, which you artfully sidestep. As a society, we tolerate certain vices. But there comes a point where, based on our collective experience, we draw the line. People who use illegal drugs are more likely to commit crimes, have children out of wedlock, be depressed, become mentally unstable and be less productive members of society. A moral and just society cannot encourage this type of behavior.
A free and healthy society requires as much freedom from government intervention as possible. It should create conditions under which members of society can reach their potential. Keeping dangerous drugs illegal is a reasonable, necessary and common-sense response to a serious problem.
Cully Stimson, a former prosecutor and defense attorney, is a senior legal fellow.
First appeared in the Los Angeles Times