Much has been said in recent years about legalizing drugs. Most of this discussion, however, deals specifically with the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes. It is a fiercely debated subject, and no consensus has been reached.
Something that has not been studied or debated nearly as much are the social and economic effects of legalized street drugs. The criminalization of drugs actually encourages crime, funds gang activities, and promotes drug addiction. Current U.S. drug policy echoes that of alcohol prohibition during the 1920s.
Such prohibitions are beneficial in the sense that law-abiding citizens sometimes try to avoid the illegal product, but they do tremendous harm to society as well, since prohibitions ". . . can increase income-generating crime, such as theft or prostitution, by raising prices if the consumers finance consumption of the prohibited commodity from such crime (The Effects of Prohibitions)."
Prohibition causes all kinds of other problems as well, such as the "forbidden fruit" effect (people using illegal substances only because they are illegal) and the corruption of government officials- often by organized crime- like when powerful gangsters were able to build criminal empires because of the ban on alcohol.
Unfortunately, much harm has already been done by America's "War on Drugs." The major increase in anti-drug efforts over the past 25 years has had an unanticipated "Darwinian" effect. Weak and ineffective drug manufacturers, smugglers, and dealers have been weeded out and replaced by those far more efficient and ruthless.
The money made from narcotics operations is often used to outfit the gangs and groups conducting them. Many Mexican "DTO’s" (Drug Trafficking Organizations) have used their profits to hire elite mercenaries to protect their operations. A U.S. government report, the National Drug Threat Assessment 2008, talks about one such group:
"Los Zetas, the enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel, may be the most technologically advanced, sophisticated, and violent of these paramilitary enforcement groups. Some Los Zetas members are former Mexican Special Forces soldiers and maintain expertise in the use of heavy weaponry, specialized military tactics, sophisticated communications equipment, intelligence collection, and counter surveillance techniques."
As long as drug smuggling remains profitable, America must be prepared to deal with these repercussions. The funding of gangs and other organized crime is probably the worst consequence of this prohibition. Many dangerous street gangs use narcotics as the primary means of paying for expensive gang wars.
It would not seem like such a threat if the money made from drug operations only funded more drug operations, but that is rarely the case. An annual report made to the California legislature showed what much of this money is used for when it stated:
". . . after a yearlong investigation, a federal grand jury indicted 12 members of the Down Below Gangsters, an African-American street gang, on charges of terrorizing residents of a San Francisco housing project while conducting a major narcotic enterprise that resulted in seven murders. The indictment also included numerous weapons violations, including the use of assault rifles, semi-automatic pistols and revolvers, and witness tampering (Organized Crime in California)."
Sadly, even a full reversal of the current drug policies in effect today would not undo all the damage that has been done. The easy money of drug operations has acted like fertile soil, giving fledgling criminals the knowledge, means, and organization to survive. Milton Friedman, a respected analyst of drug policy, said:
". . . if you legalized or decriminalized drugs, or in any other way changed the situation, these people would still be criminals; they would just go on to other crimes. Look, they say, what happened after prohibition. You had Al Capone and the gangs, and after prohibition ended they just shifted over to other sectors. Unquestionably, there is some truth in that. The building-up of a criminal class is going to leave a hangover, and the hangover is going to mean more criminality (The War We are Losing)."
Nonetheless, we need a change. Prohibition does not work. A black market has developed, just like it will always do when people want something and a government tells them they can’t have it. The ease of manufacture also plays a key role in the government’s ability to ban. Methamphetamine is routinely manufactured in basements and tool sheds, the ingredients are easily obtainable, and little special knowledge or skills are needed.
Marijuana is a weed and will grow almost anywhere. It is grown domestically from Kentucky and West Virginia to Oregon and Hawaii. The profits often fund more elaborate setups to optimize yield and potency, or lower the risk of detection. Expensive suburban homes have been found uninhabited and empty, with the exception of sophisticated apparatus designed to automatically provide light, water and nutrients to the ten million dollars worth of high-THC marijuana growing there.
Some growers are even using cloning techniques, guaranteeing that the plants they cultivate will grow fast, large, and potent. Many domestic growers, especially Mexico-based DTO’s, are buying themselves protection. Reports show that "Cannabis cultivators are employing armed guards who are strategically stationed at elevations above the grow site in order to detect approaching law enforcement scouts. . . (Domestic Cannabis Cultivation Assessment 2007)."
History repeats itself. Today we are seeing the perils of prohibition that our grandparents learned about firsthand during the "roaring twenties." It doesn’t take someone with a PhD. to see the similarities between the manufacture and sale of illegal alcohol to that of methamphetamine and cannabis.
They are all distilled/manufactured/grown clandestinely, at higher cost; they facilitate the use of gangs and organized crime for protection and optimized transportation and sale, and are usually transported in the most concentrated form possible. Very few people smuggled light beer when alcohol was illegal, it was transported and sold, for the most part, as highly concentrated hard liquor, many times as high as 190 Proof (95% alcohol).
Meth today is treated the same way, refined in home labs to get the most drug in the smallest package. What was the result? In both cases, high rates of accidental death (alcohol poisoning and drug overdoses) and difficulty for law enforcement since the contraband could be concealed so easily. Since alcohol was not illegal in Mexico or Canada during the American Prohibition, legal foreign distilleries and breweries were working overtime, selling their products to both local and American businessmen who were very good at smuggling.
Another challenge facing the enforcers of anti-drug laws is the addictive nature of drugs. An addict who needs a fix will not care about the law. He will also not care about the price, or how many other crimes he must commit in order to purchase his high. The addict will also build up a tolerance for his drug of choice over time, meaning he will need more to get high, and he will need it more often because, "As a person continues to abuse drugs, the brain adapts to the overwhelming surges in dopamine by producing less dopamine or by reducing the number of dopamine receptors in the reward circuit (NIDA)."
He becomes desperate, willing to do anything to get enough money to get his high. Often, he becomes involved dealing drugs himself, and in the process of creating customers, he causes more people to become addicted, starting the cycle over. Without the prohibition of drugs, none of this would happen. Most drugs would cost so little, a person could afford them by asking for change in front of a gas station or recycling cans.
Major criminal organizations would go the way of the dinosaurs, unable to compete with cheap, government approved narcotics. The millions of dollars that the U.S. government spends on its ineffective "War on Drugs" would be replaced with billions of dollars of tax revenue. If they can regulate it, they can tax it, and it will still be a fraction of the price of the unsafe street drugs.
To go back to the example of alcohol prohibition, how many alcoholics today are going to take a chance on moonshine when they can buy a taxed bottle of vodka for five dollars? Once the 21st amendment passed, all of the speakeasies closed their doors in a hurry.
Some will argue that the consequences of legalization outweigh the benefits. They point out the nasty things that drugs do to a person’s body and the dangers of addiction. These are valid concerns. The effects of heroin alone are rather frightening, and they include "scarred and/or collapsed veins, bacterial infections of the blood vessels and heart valves, abscesses (boils) and other soft-tissue infections, and liver or kidney disease (NIDA)."
Addiction is a disease, and it is often fatal, but there are strong arguments in favor of legalization here as well. Since drugs like heroin would be so cheap, one of the worst effects would disappear. The practice of needle sharing, which leads to the spread of hepatitis B and C, and of HIV, which causes AIDS, would be eliminated. This would also protect the addict’s sexual partners and offspring from the disease, and slow the spread of one of the most deadly viruses on the planet.
Few people think that drugs are a good thing, but they are here, and they aren’t leaving any time soon. Our current policy does more harm than good, promoting gang activities and organized crime. Since a black market will always develop in a prohibition, the only logical solution is to end that prohibition.