Legalize today: It makes economic sense

Published 11:00 pm Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The world is becoming more and more tolerant towards recreational drug use, and the US is behind the world trend. Pot, for example, is legal in Amsterdam, and drug possession across most of Europe is treated with greater acceptance and softer punishments than in the US. Closer to home, we have examples of how attitudes about drug use are a changin’: up in Vancouver, Canada, “heroin shooting galleries” exist to assure safe injections of illicit drugs. And, even in the US, there are pockets of greater tolerance: in the Fall 2012 elections, for example, the states of Colorado and Washington legalized recreational marijuana use.

Cooling it on the drug war and giving people a little more freedom is right from a moral standpoint and makes a lot of economic sense too. The War on Drugs has been a failure because it obstructs free, voluntary exchange between consenting individuals. Though many people find consumption and production of drugs to be despicable, the actual exchange is “victimless”: no party is hurt in the exchange itself. The violence and crime related to drugs comes from the fact they are banned: legalize the market for marijuana, heroin, or crystal meth, and crime from the legal drug trade will be equal to the amount of crime coming from the Starbucks coffee trade (i.e., near zero!).

Contra Jason Whitlock, who equated the National Rifle Association with the Ku Klux Klan and blamed the NRA for “loading up our community with drugs,” the federal government’s War on Drugs is the main cause for crime in the drug market. By preventing people from acquiring products—sex, drugs, gambling—in formal markets, the War on Drugs pushes them into the informal economy. Banning the exchange of drugs doesn’t stop the activity, but, rather shifts it underground. Instead of a safe, clean exchange above ground, we end up with the ugly outcomes we read about in the news: drug dealers, who have to be violent and armed to the hilt to survive, become the suppliers. But, since there’s no rule of law or property rights to protect production, the market is uncertain and prone to violence and wacked products.

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Our experience with Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933, is a tragic example of what happens when the government bans something valued by consumers. Alcohol remained available, but it was supplied by gangsters like Al Capone and Bugs Moran instead of Anheuser-Busch and Seagrams. Gangsters emerged to protect turf and assure large, concentrated profits for their distribution operations. After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, violence related to alcohol trades dropped and exchange came above ground. The difference wasn’t the people, but, rather the policies: criminalizing products people want doesn’t end well for society, and Prohibition serves as an important reminder of what not to do.

European countries like the Netherlands and Portugal have, to some extent, come to realize the drug war is pointless. Rather than chase after suppliers, they have decriminalized and focused the resources being eaten up by enforcement on rehabilitation and awareness campaigns. The savings to taxpayers are tremendous; the quality of drugs for users is more predictable; and the overall safety for the average person is far greater than it otherwise would be.

It’s high time Americans take a page from the Europeans or look back at their own experience with Prohibition. Alabama policymakers, in particular, could use looking at what we’re doing to drug offenders: Our drug laws are some of the strictest in the country, and just think of all the tax dollars and productivity being eaten up by imprisoning young drug offenders. More relaxed drug laws do not lead to societal collapse; as counterintuitive as it may seem, looser drug laws, instead, make society safer, better, and a little more fun.

Scott Beaulier is Executive Director of the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University.