There are no panaceas in the world but, for social afflictions,
legalizing drugs comes possibly as close as any single policy could.
Removing legal penalties from the production, sale and use of
"controlled substances" would alleviate at least a dozen of our biggest
social or political problems.
With proposals for legalization finally in the public eye, there
might be a use for some sort of catalog listing the benefits of
legalization. For advocates, it is an inventory of facts and arguments.
For opponents, it is a record of the problems they might be helping to
The list is intended both as a resource for those wishing to
participate in the legalization debate and as a starting point for
those wishing to get deeper into it.
Are we ready to stop wringing our hands and start solving problems?
1. Legalizing drugs would make our streets and homes safer.
As Jeffrey Rogers Hummel notes ("Heroin: The Shocking Story," April
1988), estimates vary widely for the proportion of violent and property
crime related to drugs. Forty percent is a midpoint figure. In an
October 1987 survey by Wharton Econometrics for the U.S. Customs
Service, the 739 police chiefs responding "blamed drugs for a fifth of
the murders and rapes, a quarter car thefts, two-fifths of robberies
and assaults and half the nation's burglaries and thefts."
The theoretical and statistical links between drugs and crime are
well established. In a 2 1/2-year study of Detroit crime, Lester P.
Silverman, former associate director of the National Academy of
Sciences' Assembly of Behavior and Social Sciences, found that a 10
percent increase in the price of heroin alone "produced an increase of
3.1 percent total property crimes in poor nonwhite neighborhoods."
Armed robbery jumped 6.4 percent and simple assault by 5.6 percent
throughout the city.
The reasons are not difficult to understand. When law enforcement
restricts the supply of drugs, the price of drugs rises. In 1984, a
kilogram of cocaine worth $4000 in Colombia sold at wholesale for
$30,000, and at retail in the United States for some $300,000. At the
time a Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman noted,
matter-of-factly, that the wholesale price doubled in six months "due
to crackdowns on producers and smugglers in Columbia and the U.S."
There are no statistics indicating the additional number of people
killed or mugged thanks to the DEA's crackdown on cocaine.
For heroin the factory-to-retail price differential is even
greater. According to U.S. News & World report, in 1985 a gram of pure
heroin in Pakistan cost $5.07, but it sold for $2425 on the street in
America--nearly a five-hundredfold jump.
The unhappy consequence is that crime also rises, for at least four
* Addicts must shell out hundreds of times the cost of goods, so
they often must turn to crime to finance their habits. The higher the
price goes, the more they need to steal to buy the same amount.
* At the same time, those who deal or purchase the stuff find
themselves carrying extremely valuable goods, and become attractive
targets for assault.
* Police officers and others suspected of being informants for law
enforcement quickly become targets for reprisals.
* The streets become literally a battleground for "turf" among
competing dealers, as control over a particular block or intersection
can net thousands of additional drug dollars per day.
Conversely, if and when drugs are legalized, their price will
collapse and so will the sundry drug-related motivations to commit
crime. Consumers will no longer need to steal to support their habits.
A packet of cocaine will be as tempting to grab from its owner as a
pack of cigarettes is today. And drug dealers will be pushed out of
the retail market by known retailers. When was the last time we saw
employees of Rite Aid pharmacies shoot it out with Thrift Drugs for a
When drugs become legal, we will be able to sleep in our homes and
walk the streets more safely. As one letter-writer to the Philadelphia
Inquirer put it, "law-abiding citizens will be able to enjoy not living
in fear of assault and burglary."
2. It would put an end to prison overcrowding.
Prison overcrowding is a serious and persistent problem. It makes
the prison environment, violent and faceless to begin with, even more
dangerous and dehumanizing.
According to the 1988 Statistical Abstract of the United States,
between 1979 and 1985 the number of people in federal and state prisons
and local jails grew by 57.8 percent, nine time faster than the general
Governments at all levels keep building more prisons, but the number
of prisoners keeps outpacing the capacity to hold them. According to
the Federal Bureau of Prisons' 1985 Statistical Report, as of September
30 of that year federal institutions held 35,959 prisoners-41 percent
over the rated prison capacity of 25,638. State prisons were 114
percent of capacity in 1986.
Of 31,346 sentenced prisoners in federal institutions, those in for
drug law violations were the largest single category, 9487. (A total of
4613 were in prison but not yet sentenced under various charges.)
Legalizing drugs would immediately relieve the pressure on the
prison system, since there would no longer be "drug offenders" to
incarcerate. And, since many drug users would no longer need to commit
violent or property crime to pay for their habits, there would be fewer
"real" criminals to house in the first place. Instead of building more
prisons, we could pocket the money and still be safer.
Removing the 9487 drug inmates would leave 26,472. Of those, 7200
were in for assault, burglary, larceny-theft, or robbery. If the
proportion of such crimes that is related to drugs is 40 percent,
without drug laws another 2900 persons would never have made it to
federal prison. The inmates who remained would be left in a less
cruel, degrading environment. If we repealed the drug laws, we could
eventually bring the prison population down comfortably below the
prison's rated capacity.
3. Drug legalization would free up police resources to fight crimes
against people and property.
The considerable police efforts now expended against drug activity
and drug-related crime could be redirected toward protecting innocent
people from those who would still commit crime in the absence of drug
laws. The police could protect us more effectively, as it could focus
resources on catching rapists, murderers and the remaining perpetrators
of crimes against people and property.
4. It would unclog the court system.
If you are accused of a crime, it takes months to bring you to
trial. Guilty or innocent, you must live with the anxiety of impending
trial until the trial finally begins. The process is even more
sluggish for civil proceedings.
There simply aren't enough judges to handle the skyrocketing
caseload. Because it would cut crime and eliminate drugs as a type of
crime, legislation would wipe tens of thousands of cases off the court
dockets across the continent, permitting the rest to move sooner and
faster. Prosecutors would have more time to handle each case; judges
could make more considered opinions.
Improved efficiency at the lower levels would have a ripple effect
on higher courts. Better decisions in the lower courts would yield
fewer grounds for appeals, reduing the caseloads of appeals courts; and
in any event there would be fewer cases to review in the first place.
5. It would reduce official corruption.
Drug-related police corruption takes one of two major forms.
Police officers can offer drug dealers protection in their districts
for a share of the profits (or demand a share under threat of
exposure). Or they can seize dealer's merchandise for sale themselves.
Seven current or former Philadelphia police officers were indicted
May 31 on charges of falsifying records of money and drugs confiscated
from dealers. During a house search, one man turned over $20,000 he had
made from marijuana sales, but the officers gave him a "receipt" for
$1870. Another dealer, reports The Inquirer, "told the grand jury he
was charged with possession of five pounds of marijuana, although 11
pounds were found in his house."
In Miami, 59 officers have been fired or suspended since 1985 for
suspicion of wrongdoing. The police chief and investigators expect
the number eventually to approach 100. As The Palm Beach Post
reported, "That would mean about one in 100 officers on the thousand
man force will have been tainted by one form of scandal or another."
Most of the 59 have been accused of trafficking, possessing or
using illegal drugs. In the biggest single case, 17 officers allegedly
participated in a ring that stole $15 million worth of cocaine from
dealers "and even traffic violators."
What distinguishes the Miami scandal is that "Police are alleged to
be drug traffickers themselves, not just protectors of criminals who
are engaged in illegal activities," said The post. According to James
Frye, a criminologist at American University in Washington, the gravity
of the situation in Miami today is comparable to Prohibition-era
Chicago in the 1920s and '30s.
It is apt comparison. And the problem is not limited to Miami and
Philadelphia. The astronomical profits from the illegal drug trade
are a powerful incentive on the part of law enforcement agents to
partake from the proceeds.
Legalizing the drug trade outright would eliminate this inducement
to corruption and help to clean up the police's image. Eliminating
drug-related corruption cases would further reduce the strain on the
courts, freeing judges and investigators to handle other cases more
thoroughly and expeditiously.
6. Legalization would save tax money.
Efforts to interdict the drug traffic alone cost $6.2 billion in
1986, according to Wharton Econometrics of Bala Cynwyd, Pa. If we ad
the cost of trying and incarcerating users, traffickers, and those who
commit crime to pay for their drugs, the tab runs well above $10
The crisis in inmate housing would disappear, saving taxpayers the
expense of building more prisons in the future.
As we've noted above, savings would be redirected toward better
police protection and speedier judicial service. Or it could be
converted into savings for taxpayers. Or the federal portion of the
costs could be applied toward the budget deficit. For a change, it's a
happy problem to ponder. But it takes legalization to make it
7. It would cripple organized crime.
The Mafia (heroin), Jamaican gangs (crack), and the Medellin Cartel
(cocaine) stand to lose billions in drug profits from legalization.
On a per-capita basis, members of organized crime, particularly at the
top, stand to lose the most from legalizing the drug trade.
The underworld became big business in the United States when
alcohol was prohibited. Few others would risk setting up the
distribution networks, bribing officials or having to shoot up a
policeman or competitor once in a while. When alcohol was
re-legalized, reputable manufacturers took over. The risk and the high
profits went out of the alcohol trade. Even if they wanted to keep
control over it, the gangsters could not have targeted every
manufacturer and every beer store.
The profits from illegal alcohol were minuscule compared to the
yield from today's illegal drugs. They are the underworld's last
great, greatest, source of illegal income--dwarfing anything to be made
fromgambling, prostitution or other vice.
Legalizing drugs would knock out this huge prop from under organized
crime. Smugglers and pushers would have to go aboveboard or go out of
business. There simply wouldn't be enough other criminal endeavors to
employ them all.
If we are concerned about the influence of organized crime on
government, industry and our own personal safety, we could strike no
single more damaging blow against today's gangsters than to legalize
8. Legal drugs would be safer. Legalization is a consumer protection
Because it is illegal, the drug trade today lacks many of the
consumer safety features common to other markets: instruction sheets,
warning labels, product quality control, manufacturer accountability.
Driving it underground makes any product, including drugs, more
dangerous than it needs to be.
Nobody denies that currently illegal drugs can be dangerous. But so
can aspirin, countless other over-the-counter drugs and common
household items; yet the proven hazards of matches, modeling glue and
lawn mowers are not used as reasons to make them all illegal.
Practically anything can kill if used in certain ways. Like heroin,
salt can make you sick or dead if you take enough of it. The point is
to learn what the threshold is, and to keep below it. That many things
can kill is not a reason to prohibit them all--it is a reason to find
out how to handle products to provide the desired action safely. The
same goes for drugs.
Today's drug consumer literally doesn't know what he's buying. The
stuff is so valuable that sellers have an incentive to "cut" (dilute)
the product with foreign substances that look like the real thing.
Most street heroin is only 3 to 6 percent pure; street cocaine, 10 to
Since purity varies greatly, consumers can never be really sure how
much to take to produce the desired effects. If you're used to 3
percent heroin and take a 5 percent dose, suddenly you've nearly
doubled your intake.
Manufacturers offering drugs on the open market would face different
incentives than pushers. They rely on name-brand recognition to build
market share, and on customer loyalty to maintain it. There would be
a powerful incentive to provide a product of uniform quality: killing
customers or losing them to competitors is not a proven way to
success. Today, dealers can make so much off a single sale that the
incentive to cultivate a clientele is weak. In fact, police persecution
makes it imperative to move on, damn the customers.
Pushers don't provide labels or instructions, let alone mailing
addresses. The illegal nature of the business makes such things
unnecessary or dangerous to the enterprise. After legalization,
pharmaceutical companies could safely try to win each other's
customers--or guard against liability suits--with better information
and more reliable products.
Even pure heroin on the open market would be safer than today's
impure drugs. As long as customers know what they're getting and what
it does, they can adjust their dosages to obtain the intended effect
Information is the best protection against the potential hazards of
drugs or any other product. Legalizing drugs would promote consumer
health and safety.
9. Legalization would help stem the spread of AIDS and
As D.R. Blackmon notes ("Moral Deaths," June 1988), drug
prohibition has helped propagate AIDS among intravenous drug users.
Because IV drug users utilize hypodermic needles to inject heroin
and other narcotics, access to needles is restricted. The dearth of
needles leads users to share them. If one IV user has infected blood
and some enters the needle as it is pulled out, the next user may shoot
the infectious agent directly into his own bloodstream.
Before the AIDS epidemic, this process was already known to spread
other diseases, principally hepatitis B. Legalizing drugs would
eliminate the motivation to restrict the sale of hypodermic needles.
With needles cheap and freely available, the drug users would have
little need to share them and risk acquiring someone else's virus.
Despite the pain and mess involved, injection became popular
because, as The Washington Times put it, "that's the way to get the
biggest, longest high for the money." Inexpensive, legal heroin, on
the other hand, would enable customers to get the same effect (using a
greater amount) from more hygienic methods such as smoking or
swallowing--cutting further into the use of needles and further slowing
the spread of AIDS.
10. Legalization would halt the erosion of other personal liberties.
Hundreds of governments and corporations have used the alleged
costs of drugs to begin testing their employees for drugs.
Pennsylvania Rep. Robert Walker has embarked on a crusade to withhold
the federal money carrot from any company or agency that doesn't
guarantee a "drug-free workplace."
The federal government has pressured foreign countries to grant
access to bank records so it can check for "laundered" drug money.
Because drug dealers handle lots of cash, domestic banks are now
required to report cash deposits over $10,000 to the Internal Revenue
Service for evidence of illicit profit.
The concerns (excesses?) that led to all of these would disappear
ipso facto with drg legalization. Before drugs became big business,
investors could put their money in secure banks abroad without fear of
harassment. Mom-and-pop stores could deposit their cash receipts
unafraid that they might look like criminals.
Nobody makes a test for urine levels of sugar or caffeine a
requirement for employment or grounds for dismissal. However, were
they declared illegal these would certainly become a lot riskier to
use, and hence a possible target for testing "for the sake of our
employees." Legalizing today's illegal drugs would make them safer,
deflating the drive to test for drug use.
11. It would stabilize foreign countries and make them
safer to live
in and travel to.
The connection between drug traffickers and and guerrilla groups is
fairly well documented (see "One More Reason," August 1987). South
American revolutionaries have developed a symbiotic relationship with
with coca growers and smugglers: the guerrillas protect the growers
and smugglers in echange for cash to finance their subversive
activities. in Peru, competing guerrilla groups, the Shining Path and
the Tupac Amaru, fight for the lucrative right to represent coca
farmers before drug traffickers.
Traffickers themselves are well prepared to defend their crops
against intruding government forces. A Peruvian military helicopter
was destroyed with bazooka fire in March, 1987, and 23 police officers
were killed. The following June, drug dealers attacked a camp of
national guardsmen in Venezuela, killing 13.
In Colombia, scores of police officers, more than 20 judges, two
newspaper editors, the attorney general and the justice minister have
been killed in that country's war against cocaine traffickers. Two
supreme court justices, including the court president, have resigned
following death threats. The Palace of Justice was sacked in 1985 as
guerrillas destroyed the records of dozens of drug dealers.
"This looks like Beirut," said the mayor of Medellin, Colombia,
after a bomb ripped apart a city block where the reputed head of the
Medellin Cartel lives. It "is a waning of where the madness of the
violence that afflicts us can bring us."
Legalizing the international drug trade would affect organized
crime and subversion abroad much as it would in the United States. A
major source for guerrilla funding would disappear. So would the
motive for kidnapping or assassinating officials and private
individuals. As in the United States, ordinary Colombians and
Peruvians once again could walk the streets and travel the roads
without fear of drug-related violence. Countries would no longer be
paralyzed by smugglers.
12. Legalization would repair U.S. relations with other countries and
curtail anti-American sentiment around the world.
a. When Honduran authorities spirited away alleged drug lord Juan
Matta Ballesteros and had him extradited to the United States in April,
Hondurans rioted in the streets and demonstrated for days at the U.S.
embassy in Tegucigulpa.
The action violated Honduras's constitution, which prohibits
extradition. Regardless of what Matta may have done, many Hondurans
viewed the episode as a flagrant violation of their little country's
laws, just to satisfy the wishes of the colossus up North.
b. When the U.S. government, in July 1986, sent Army troops and
helicopters to raid cocaine factories in Bolivia, Bolivians were
outraged. The constitution "has been trampled," said the president of
Bolivia's House of Representatives. The country's constitution
requires congressional approval for any foreign military presence.
c. One thousand coca growers marched through the capital, La Paz,
chanting "Death to the United States" and "Up with Coca" last May in
protest over a U.S.-sponsored bill to prohibit most coca production.
In late June, 5000 angry farmers overran a U.S. Drug Enforcement
Administration jungle base, demanding the 40 American soldiers and
drug agents there leave immediately.
U.S. pressure on foreign governments to fight their domestic drug
industries has clearly reinforced the image of America as an
imperialist bully, blithely indifferent to the concerns of other
peoples. To Bolivian coca farmers, the U.S. government is not a beacon
of freedom, but a threat to their livelihoods. To many Hondurans it
seems that their government will ignore its own constitution on request
from Uncle Sam. Leftists exploit such episodes to fan nationalistic
sentiment to promote their agendas.
Legalizing the drug trade would remove some of the reasons to hate
America and deprive local politicians of the chance to exploit them.
The U.S. would have a new opportunity to repair its reputation in an
atmosphere of mutual respect.