War on Drugs: Part IV – Revisited


For every prohibition you create you also create an underground.

Jello Biafra

Once, during Prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water.

W.C. Fields

Even if one takes every reefer madness allegation of the prohibitionists at face value, marijuana prohibition has done far more harm to far more people than marijuana ever could.

William F. Buckley, Jr. (the “founder” of modern conservatism)

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.

George Orwell

I spent much of the day reading the arguments against legalization. It was only fair. There are many articles on the subject. When one reads them, the authors make their arguments on fact-based evidence. Indeed, this is a thorny issue. If the answer were straightforward we would not see so many opposing points of view. It is not my position that opponents of drug legalization are simply Puritanical. They are not. It is not at all clear that legalization would demonstrate suddenly and unequivocally the folly of the “war on drugs.” My position is that the “war on drugs” has been lost. We need to try legalization. If that doesn’t work, the problem may be insoluble.

Would drug decriminalization work?

Some experiments in drug legalization have been abject failures. The Swiss opened a “legalized drug” area in Zürich and local addicts were given drugs, clean needles, and emergency medical care. Unfortunately, the liberal policy backfired and the number of addicts inhabiting the “park” surged to 3,500; violence surged, too. “Needle Park,” as it came to be known, was a place of open warfare among rival gangs. Officials ended the experiment (in 1995), conceding that it had evolved into a grotesque spectacle.

Experiments in California, Alaska, and Oregon in marijuana legalization were attempted, but not very successful. California decriminalized marijuana in 1976, and, within the first six months, arrests for driving under the influence of drugs rose 46 percent for adults and 71 percent for juveniles. Decriminalizing marijuana in Alaska and Oregon in the 1970s resulted in the doubling of use.

These often cited examples do suffer from some serious flaws. The Zürich experiment was fatally flawed from the beginning. It was an open invitation to concentrate every addict in a four-nation radius into one “park.” If drug legalization or decriminalization were nationwide or continent-wide, this fiasco would not have happened. The California, Alaska, and Oregon experiences occurred more than three decades ago. The proliferation of drug availability and usage over this time frame makes comparisons illogical.

Alternatively, there are more cogent and more recent success stories, as well. [From: Drugs in Portugal: Did Decriminalization Work? by Maia Szalavitz.] Some will be surprised to learn that Portugal (and not the Netherlands or Scandinavian countries) has the most liberal drug policy in Europe. In 2001 Portugal became the first European country to officially abolish all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. Recently released results of a report commissioned by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, suggest that the new laws are having a salutary effect. The Cato study found that in the five years after personal possession was decriminalized, illegal drug use among teens in Portugal declined and rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing of dirty needles dropped, while the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled.

“Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success,” says Glenn Greenwald, an attorney, author and fluent Portuguese speaker, who conducted the research. “It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does.”

Compared to the European Union and the U.S., Portugal’s drug use numbers are impressive. Following decriminalization, Portugal had the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the E.U.: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.

There are those social conservatives who will naturally doubt anything published by the libertarian Cato Institute. However, the following scientific study verified the Cato conclusions. [From, What Can We Learn From The Portuguese Decriminalization of Illicit Drugs? by CE Hughes and A Stevens, Br J Criminol (2010) 50 (6): 999-1022]. Abstract: The issue of decriminalizing illicit drugs is hotly debated, but is rarely subject to evidence-based analysis. This paper examines the case of Portugal, a nation that decriminalized the use and possession of all illicit drugs on 1 July 2001. Drawing upon independent evaluations and interviews conducted with 13 key stakeholders in 2007 and 2009, it critically analyses the criminal justice and health impacts against trends from neighboring Spain and Italy. It concludes that contrary to predictions, the Portuguese decriminalization did not lead to major increases in drug use. Indeed, evidence indicates reductions in problematic use, drug-related harms and criminal justice overcrowding.

What to do?

Libertarians and social conservatives represent opposite ends of the spectrum and likely will never agree on drug policy. These two widely disparate sides cannot determine the debate. Alcoholism and AIDS are considered diseases and I believe that is appropriate. However, one cannot deny the “lifestyle” association of these diseases. It is true that we would have fewer Americans afflicted with these diseases if we were still governed by Puritans. Is that the tradeoff we wish to make? It may be true that more people will sample drugs if they are legalized. It is less certain that more will become addicted or become problem drug users.

The debate needs to center on the consequences of waging the war on drugs versus the consequences of a more open acceptance of a human desire to consume such stimulants/depressants. The latter does not assign a particular moral status to drug use. Society must define what “legalization” means. For example, if asked, most would say that alcohol is legal. Is it? Alcohol is subject to a number of restrictions. These include excise taxes, legal prohibitions against underage drinking, limits on television and radio advertising, sales licensing, and limiting locations in which alcohol can be imbibed. “Legalization” of other drugs would certainly still mean a highly regulated status.

It is time for America to face this problem head on before Mexico’s drug war is being fought on American streets (this day is coming and coming fast upon us).

My suggestions:

I suggest a combination of legalization and ultra-strict law enforcement and punishment. Let me explain.

Step I: All marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, and heroine can be legally purchased by adults, but only in a State owned and operated store. Those who live in or previously lived in states with “state liquor stores” know the type of store to which I refer. In eighteen alcoholic beverage control states, the specialty liquor stores are owned and operated exclusively by the state government. Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Utah allow low alcohol content beer only to be sold outside of a state controlled store. The remaining states would need to develop such stores.

Step II: Any purchase of these drugs outside of these state stores meets the same criminal prosecution as is currently enacted in each state or, better still, a more severe punishment.

Step III: Sale of these drugs outside of these stores is punishable by mandatory incarceration.

Step IV: All drugs sold in these stores must be grown on American soil by permit (i.e., marijuana, poppies). Growing of drugs on private property is strictly forbidden and carries severe penalties. Sale of a drug produced outside of the USA carries even more draconian penalties.

Step V: American drug or “cigarette” manufacturers must produce all products for sale in these state stores. Again, only licensed companies will be permitted to produce the drugs that will be sold.

Step VI: The purchase price of the drugs in State stores must favorably compete with the price of drugs sold on the streets – the latter will not disappear for some time.

Step VII: Set up random highway patrol and police check points for driving under the influence (DUI) of any mind altering drug. The penalties for driving under the influence should be somewhere between severe or draconian – take your choice. (I believe DUIs to be a likely negative consequence of drug legalization.) Also, the drugs discovered at such checkpoints can be determined to be “legal” or “illegal” with appropriate penalties to follow if “illegal.”

I favor legalization over decriminalization because decriminalization only solves the problem from the user side of the equation. It does nothing to stem the flood of illegal drugs and the violence of the drug traffickers. America needs to wage an “economic war” against drug cartels. We need to price them out of existence by making legal American drugs cheaper than drug cartel drugs. We further disincentivizing purchase of “illegal” drugs by incentivizing the purchase of “legal” drugs – go to jail if one chooses the former versus no penalty if choosing the latter. That is a business plan that cannot fail. And, let us not forget that I am a rank amateur and that law enforcement officials could concoct a better scheme than mine.

These steps ensure several likely positive outcomes. Drug cartels will not be able to compete. Their power comes from money and a willingness to do violence. The money will evaporate; the need for violence will follow. This will not happen overnight, but it will happen. Second, countries like Afghanistan, Columbia, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico will no longer be dragged into our “drug war.” After all, these countries are embroiled in this bloody war due to the supply chain of American drugs sales. Those who take these drugs will be certain of purity and uniformity of dose. The infection rate from hepatitis C and HIV will be dramatically lowered. Enormous amounts of revenue become available to treat and/or otherwise ameliorate the negative consequences of drug legalization – and it would be simple-minded to believe their would be no negative consequences.

I’d like to thank my readers for their patience through this particularly long rant. As promised, tomorrow will bring a new post that examines data from the now 15-year experience of Portugal following the legalization of drugs.

Roy Filly

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About Roy Filly

Please read my first blog in which I describe myself and my goals.
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2 Responses to War on Drugs: Part IV – Revisited

  1. Roy Filly says:

    I recommended state stores. Even I’m not crazy enough to put the Federal government in charge.

  2. Pingback: What did and did not change under Obama. | The Rugged Individualist

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