Lessons from the drug wars: Legalize for a Safer America
By Beth Cody, Writers’ Group member
Iowa City Press-Citizen
Friday, January 11, 2008

When I started reading about libertarian ideas, I wasn’t immediately convinced that we should legalize all drugs. Wouldn’t that just lead to a nation of addicts and criminals? However, the more I research legalization, the more I believe that it would greatly benefit our country.

Many people think drugs should be illegal for two reasons: to discourage an unhealthy habit and to discourage the crime that is associated with drug use. But illegality is of questionable effectiveness in discouraging use, and it unquestionably makes crime far worse.

Making drugs illegal clearly hasn’t discouraged people from trying them (a third of Americans have), and it can paradoxically make them seem more attractive (the “rebellion” factor).

Libertarians assert that it is not the proper role for government to act as nanny, to protect us from hurting ourselves – and using drugs recreationally doesn’t usually hurt anyone else.

But being arrested or jailed does hurt people – the incarcerated and their families, the taxpayers, our economy. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world – we have one-quarter of all the world’s prisoners – and drug offenders make up 25% of U.S. inmates. And forty percent of drug arrests are merely for possession of marijuana: 750,000 people become part of the criminal justice system each year for relaxing harmlessly.

All this hurts our economy (which means fewer jobs). None of those people sitting in jail are able to contribute to our economy by working, and having a prison record may prevent them from obtaining good (legal) jobs after release. Additionally, the Drug-War Industrial Complex wastes probably $50 billion a year of our tax money on drug enforcement and imprisonment.

However, the most terrible cost of the drug war has been the erosion of our civil liberties, and I don’t just mean cold medicine restrictions. The government can seize your property on mere suspicion of drug activity (no “innocent until proven guilty”).

And each year, heavily-armed police SWAT teams conduct 40,000 paramilitary invasions of homes to serve warrants on mostly non-violent drug users. These terrifying raids usually occur at night when people think they are safe in their beds, and dozens of non-violent and innocent people have accidentally been killed this way.

Other innocent people have been jailed for life for merely knowing someone who “turned them in” to get a lighter sentence. These horrors will only get worse, as the drug warriors desperately demand more and more power in order to show some results. These are terrible threats to our freedom, and cannot be excused by the possibility that legalization might (or might not) result in a few more addicts.

If recreational drugs were legalized, they would be manufactured by reputable companies and sold at the corner drugstore. And they would be cheap: it is estimated that cocaine would only cost 10 cents per dose for large manufacturers to make.

This would have three beneficial effects: First, drug users would not need to commit crimes to afford drugs. (27% of federal prisoners admit committing their offence for money to buy drugs.)

Second, criminals would no longer be able to manufacture or distribute drugs, because they wouldn’t be able to compete with more efficient, reputable companies. (Who would buy from a trailer “meth” lab if higher-quality, less-expensive drugs were available at Walgreens?) This would greatly reduce violent crime – nearly 40% of New York City’s murders in 1999 were drug-trade related, and the figure for Iowa is about 20%.

Third, the decline in drug-related crime would free up law enforcement to concentrate on violent and property crimes, which would result in a safer society for all of us and cost taxpayers less too.

Yes, but how can I say that being able to buy heroin at Walgreen’s is a good thing? Won’t we become a nation of addicts? The evidence suggests the opposite. In Holland, marijuana use is legal but a far smaller percent of the population uses it than here.

And even if the addiction rate did rise, we know how to prevent and treat addiction, without the violence and police-state side effects.

Drug abuse is bad, but the drug war is much worse. It’s time we eliminate this big-government war on the American people.