Thursday, December 4, 2008

The case for drug legalization

I was on one of my economic sites today, The Ludwig Von Mises Institute, (Ludwig Von Mises was the frontrunner of Austrian economists - the father of classical liberalism, libertarian political theory) and I found an article that ran on AFP about how tomorrow (December 5th) will mark the 75th anniversary of the repeal of prohibition. Full article here.

It was a short article which basically served to re-inform me of the reasons for the enactment and repeal of prohibition. As most people already know, it was enacted by conservatives as a "noble experiment" to "enhance democracy and the political process, reduce crime and corruption, improve health, reduce addiction." It was a moral crusade against those sick of seeing the family wages blown on alcohol by abusive drunk husbands and fathers. A noble experiment indeed, and I mean that sincerely. Alcoholism is a horrible affliction, and trying to reduce and eliminate its existence is noble. Unfortunately, the crusade only half worked. Through most of the country, drinking levels did decline, and so the experiment was in that instance successful. However, it is also common knowledge that prohibition gave rise to enormous amounts of bootlegging and organized crime in larger, urban communities like New York, Chicago, etc. Prohibition was repealed in 1933, a consequence of the stock market crash. The government needed something to tax, and repealing prohibition finally put a little extra money into the incredibly stagnant economy.

As I said, from a moral point of view (and coming from a non-drinking family) I can understand why prohibition was a good idea, in theory. From a libertarian point of view I see why it was such a horrible idea. First and foremost, it was a gross violation of an individuals right to his own pursuit of happiness. It reminds me of being in elementary school and having the entire class receive punishments for the acts of a few obnoxious individuals who misbehaved for a substitute teacher. It caused many people to commit illegal activities in buying, consuming, manufacturing and transporting an illicit substance, and undermining the law is never good for anyone. It allowed for organized crime to grow, to spread it's evil influence not only across major cities, but to form links across the entire nation and grow in power. Prohibition was like communism; great in theory, but it doesn't work, and the negative effects far outweighed the benefits. I say, as I'm sure many, many, many others have said, thank the lord it was repealed.

Unfortunately, our society hasn't totally learned it's lesson from the failed experiment of alcohol prohibition. I present to you the case for drug legalization - specifically marijuana.

The term "war on drugs" was first used by President Nixon in 1971 (on a side note, must we really use the term "war" for everything? The war on terrorism, the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on the environment - no wonder it always feels like the world is about to end). Since then, the United States has spent billions of dollars each year fighting drug trafficking, consumption, and possession not only in our own country, but in countries all over the world. The website Drug Sense gives us a "war on drugs clock" showing the amount of money spent at each government level on the drug war for just this year. The site provides other statistics on arrests due to drug possession and trafficking (771,172 arrested for cannabis possession), as well as incarcerations. As with prohibition, I can understand the drug war from a moral perspective. Drugs ruin lives, so it would be right to prevent people from using them. However, it all goes back to my abhorrence of being told what to do by the government. Instead of allowing us to use our own judgement when presented with the opportunity to use (or abuse) drugs, the decision has been taken away and made for you. You are told what's best for you.

I have faith in my own ability to stay clear of the kind of drug use that would ruin my life, and I believe that most people would be able to say the same. The main argument I would present in defense of drug legalization is that were it legal, it would not take away the social stigma of being a drug addict. When prohibition was repealed, it didn't become okay for a person to become an alcoholic, just because liquor was legal once again. The website Blogcritics has an excellent essay on the case for drug legalization, which I would urge everyone to check out. It's very clear and astute, giving the reader a short but thorough rundown of the cons of the drug war. Many of my opinions on the subject are probably better articulated there.

In many instances, the current drug war represents the past repeating itself. It is the prohibition of our times, and the two share many, many similarities. One of the key reasons prohibition was such a bad idea was that it gave way for the incredible growth of gangsters and organized crime. The same has happened with the drug war, except the consequences are a lot farther reaching. While liquor could easily be manufactured within our borders, many high demand drugs do not come from the United States. Take cocaine for instance. Cocaine is the second most popular recreational drug, with marijuana taking first. In transporting cocaine from it's South American origins, we have not mafia gangsters, but international drug lords. Drug legalization would stop these horrible people in their tracks. To quote Tom Donelson, author of the above linked essay "Conservative Case for Drug Legalization,"

"The drug war has strengthened organized crime and allowed international crime families as well as terrorist organizations to use the drug trade as a means to raise money. Billions of dollars reach the coffers of many criminal organizations and this money produces seed money to corrupt public officials and undermine law enforcement. This also happened during alcohol prohibition when gangsters received funding to expand their empires. Legalization of drugs would reduce cash to terrorist and criminal organizations and make it easier to police these illegal corporations."

Drugs are not something to be taken lightly, and neither are those who distribute them. If drugs were available legally, distributors (as well as consumers) would have set laws to follow and obey, allowing for safer consumption and distribution. Not to mention all of the underlings of the drug lords finally being freed from their mass amounts of corruption.

A product of being brought up in the public school system is that on many levels, you are unfortunately misinformed of basic concepts and topics - namely about drugs in health class (and economics, but I won't get into that here). While I have nothing against our school system (I believe that I received a very good education at all of my schools from Kindergarten to senior year), as I have grown older I have realized that many of the things I was told about common drugs weren't necessarily untrue, but definitely highly misleading. In school we were taught that marijuana was considered "the gateway drug." Through my health education I came to one conclusion, using marijuana would inevitably lead to using cocaine, ecstasy, heroin, crack-cocaine, meth, etc. By this "gateway drug" description, marijuana has been hyped up to be just as bad as hard core drugs. This description has the intent of scaring people away from trying cannabis, but I believe that it has the opposite effect. Many, many, many teens will be offered marijuana, and many will partake. It's part of the experimentation that goes on in your late teens and early twenties. The first time I smoked marijuana, it was unlike anything I had expected. I didn't hallucinate, I didn't see smiley faces and rainbows everywhere; I didn't "trip balls" like I was expecting to. Although marijuana is technically a hallucinogen, it does not produce the mind altering effects that one would expect it to if they've never tried it; while it obviously changes how you think, feel, and act, it is not on the level of say, LSD. Anyone who has tried it, and anyone who has looked at the statistics knows that the dangers of marijuana are comparably low to those of other drugs (including alcohol). When one tries marijuana and comes to this conclusion, it would be easy to assume that more hard core drugs are also as highly sensationalized, and not as dangerous as they really are. This is why marijuana has become the "gateway drug." We are so mislead as to it's effects and dangers, when a user learns this for himself, he sometimes assumes that it is this way with all drugs. Due to the nature of marijuana (not that dangerous), the marijuana trade, and it's unrightful inclusion with harder drugs, it is assumed that profits from marijuana traffic can be included with those of hard drugs in funding terrorist organizations. This is also a fallacy. Unlike coca plants (the source of cocaine), marijuana can be grown with ease in local settings. The profits don't often make their way into that of Colombian drug lords. In short, marijuana as "the gateway drug" is a self fulfilling prophecy. And the idea that pot trafficking adds to terrorist funds is perpetuated by gross misinformation.

During prohibition, beer and wine were not big sellers. The demand was for hard liquor, which consequentially paid the bootleggers more. Drug prohibition has seen the same results. While marijuana and cocaine are still the most popular of recreational drugs, we've seen a shift to the use of harder, more dangerous drugs. When I was in elementary school I remember attending assemblies where we would have motivational speaker types expound on the dangers of drug use, and I remember number one on the list of most dangerous being crack-cocaine. I graduated from elementary school 13 years ago, which isn't all that long ago, but I can't remember the last time I heard something more than cursory about crack. Now we have meth. If the war on drugs continues, I guarantee that a drug worse than meth is right around the corner. Were drugs to be legalized, I think that the legal availability of considerably less dangerous drugs would eliminate the need for ones like crack and meth. If it were easy and legal to buy marijuana, I believe that many users of harder drugs would make the switch. Not to mention that you wouldn't have to pay black market prices. Legalized drugs (particularly marijuana) would be a great deal cheaper. Being able to purchase more weed would discourage the use of the harder, more expensive stuff.

And there are obvious economic benefits to drug legalization, and clearly, now is the time to reap them. I saw the comedy-documentary "Super High Me," starring comic Doug Benson (well known among comics for his love of weed), this past spring. The premise of the movie was, you guessed it, based on "Super Size Me." Cameras followed Benson around for 60 days; the first 30 he did not use any marijuana at all, and the last 30, he smoked weed consistently throughout the day. The movie was interspersed with facts about marijuana, medicinal marijuana laws, government involvement in the drug war, and one thing that I found most interesting, the profits of the marijuana market in America. Of course, since drugs run on the black market, official numbers don't exist, but the industry netted an estimated 14 billion in marijuana sales. That's a lot of money. That's revenue that the government could be taxing. Instead, they'd rather spend over 47 billion combating it.

Some will say that legalizing drugs will see an increase in their consumption. This is true. It's only logical that if were drugs were to be legalized their consumption would go up, but this would not be exponential growth; it would level off. If drugs were legal, it doesn't mean that everyone would be inclined to buy and use them. It reminds me of a particularly facetious Simpsons quote from Reverend Lovejoy "once something has been approved by the government, it's no longer immoral." We all know that this is not true. It goes back to my first point - legalization would not take away the social stigma of being a drug user. And it's not like we don't have available data to predict the outcome of drug legalization. We all know that drugs in the Netherlands have been greatly decriminalized, yet they have 60% the drug use of America.

The always brilliant South Park did an episode "My Future Self 'n' Me" which portrayed marijuana in it's usually insightful, hilarious light. Stan and Sharon Marsh hire an actor to play their son Stan's future self, a loser who got caught up in drugs and alcohol and dropped out of school, to scare Stan into staying the straight path. The "I've learned something today" segment consisted of Stan finally telling his son the truth about marijuana.

Stan Marsh: "Well Stan, the truth is, marijuana probably isn't going to make you kill people, and most likely isn't going to fund terrorists. Well, son, pot makes you feel fine with being bored, and it's when you're bored that you should be learning some new skill, or discovering some new science, or being creative. You smoke pot you may grow up to find that you aren't good at anything"

And there you have it. The simple truth. People smoke pot for the same reasons they drink alcohol - because it's fun. But when this fun gets in the way of being a productive human being, it becomes a problem. Most people know this, and it should be up to us to decide whether or not it's something we want to partake of.

I would be neglecting my self imposed blog responsibility if I didn't mention the one con I would have in the case of drug legalization. Or, more accurately the one stipulation I have for drug legalization. If drugs are legalized, it needs to be done in a way that keeps responsibility on the individual. I am a believer in individual rights, so I believe it should be up to us if we want to use drugs. With rights come responsibilities, and it is the users responsibility to make sure drug use doesn't take over their life. What I mean by that is, if drugs are legalized, it needs to be done in a way where drug producers and distributors will not be held accountable if the consumer becomes an addict. We don't need a repeat of the lawsuits against McDonalds and the tobacco companies.

I hope that everyone this weekend will celebrate our freedom to drink alcohol, if not by consuming it, then by acknowledging that it is our right to drink it responsibly. I also hope that with the economic downturn of our country, the government can come to see the (wasteful) error of it's ways and decriminalize drugs.

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