Drug Laws

Our drug laws don’t work. Immense amounts of money are spent on drugs. Because drugs are illegal, this money goes to criminals. This leads to ghastly levels of violence in places like Mexico and Colombia. Drug money supports the Taliban (admittedly this money is probably mostly from Europe) which spends it on attacking U.S. armed forces. Drug money helps destroy poor areas within the U.S. by ensuring that the wealthiest, most powerful, people are criminals who flout the law.

Why do we do this? Tobacco kills far more people than any other drug. Alcohol destroys many lives. Nobody is trying to make them illegal. This is a clear double-standard.

I think we should legalize most drugs. Relatively minor drugs like marijuana should be regulated and taxed like tobacco (a new source of government revenue which everybody could support). Major drugs like heroin should be illegal to sell but legal to possess and legal to give away to adults. The money we currently spend on interdicting supply should be spent instead on counseling and research on how to end addiction.

Illegal drugs are generally bad for you. Some will fry your brain much faster than alcohol. If drugs are legal, it is likely that more people will try them, and it is likely that more brains will be fried. But there is a trade-off here. We know for sure that making drugs illegal is destroying many lives. We don’t know how many lives will be destroyed if drugs are legalized. We need to find out. The way to find out is for the Federal government to step out of drug regulation and to leave it to the states.

This is a harsh position to take: it means that some people will be hurt. But the current situation is really bad. We need to try something different, not just more of the same.

I’m somewhat surprised that the Republican party doesn’t support this position. Getting the government out of drug enforcement makes it smaller. Eliminating drug laws means giving people the responsibility to look after themselves, rather than depending on the government to look after them. Admittedly the evangelical wind of the party would not support repealing these laws.

I’m very surprised that there is no active debate on this issue. How can our societal consensus be a policy that is so clearly broken?


  1. jldugger said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 5:49 pm

    “I’m somewhat surprised that the Republican party doesn’t support this position.”

    Well obviously, because if God didn’t want us to fight the War on Drugs, he wouldn’t have sent his warrior-angel Reagan to deliver us from the evils of drugs.

    More seriously, you’re probably wrong to conclude there is a consensus in the nation. California is constantly testing that “consensus” in medical marijuana cases. Really, I think medical marijuana is a silly term when proponents insist it be smoked. As far as I can tell, there are better delivery systems for the active ingredients than smoking it. Vaporization comes to mind.

  2. lev said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 6:26 pm

    Nick Davies has written various interesting articles about this type of thing (from a UK perspective).
    You might enjoy this one from 2001, discussing how safe heroin really is:


  3. rdb said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 7:32 pm

    Via The Reality-Based Community

    Federation of American Scientists Drug Policy Project
    and Reality-Based Community Drug Policy posts

  4. ncm said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 9:00 pm


    I think you confuse the RNC’s rhetoric with their actual goals. The rhetoric is for the rubes who actually vote for them. No Republican administration has ever shrunk the federal government, or even tried, unless you count environmental or white-collar law enforcement. Each has radically expanded federal power. The evident goal is always to increase the flow of power from the population at large to the biggest corporate shareholders. By this measure the current administration is the most successful ever.

    Building and operating prisons is a very big and profitable business, and one that employs very many lobbyists. Getting the little people used to having their doors broken down without warning is a side benefit. You might as well propose reducing the power of the MPAA or the RIAA.

  5. bloovis said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 7:31 am

    Some Republicans have seen the light, though they appear to be in the minority. National Review published an issue in 1996 entitled “The War on Drugs is Lost”: http://www.nationalreview.com/12feb96/drug.html

    (P.S. You may remember me as Mark A. from Cygnus.)

  6. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 5:20 pm

    Thanks for the comments.

    jldugger: Medical marijuana is indeed a counterexample, though they’re still trying to put some fairly tight controls on it. Why doesn’t California just legalize marijuana? Heck, if the state could tax all the illegal marijuana farms it might balance the budget.

    lev: Thanks for the link. It’s a good read. It’s hard to know what heroin addicts would be like if heroin were legal, but that articles gives reasons for optimism.

    rdb: Thanks for the links; pity they seem old.

    ncm: Not to encourage your cynicism, but you forget to mention that criminals also benefit from the drug laws.

    Bloovis: Thanks for the link, that’s an interesting one, pity it didn’t seem to carry forward.

  7. ncm said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 11:07 pm

    Drug criminals, as a rule, have very little political influence in the U.S., CIA excepted.

    I’m not at all cynical. Some people with immense political and economic power are, though. You can’t make any sense of political events without acknowledging their role.

  8. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 6:13 am

    There have certainly been some drug criminals with political influence, like Whitey Bulger or Frank Lucas.

    I’ve read that the current strategy of the drug war is to break up the major cartels into many smaller groups. This doesn’t have any significant effect on the price or availability of drugs, but it does reduce the influence of drug criminals on society.

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