On January 4, Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered a hit to burgeoning marijuana legalization efforts by rescinding the policies of federal noninterference in marijuana-friendly states.
Is this really the way forward? In fact, is this really about marijuana or is it about the entire misguided War on Drugs that Richard Nixon started in the late 1960s and has now cost more than $1 trillion and yielded no discernable results? Politicians are trying to solve the drug problem, essentially caused by government interference, with more government interference.
Some form of this debate has been going for more than 100 years. It began with alcohol prohibition, which was enacted in 1920. Yet today, no thinking person believes the government should waste time, money, and resources attempting to reinstate alcohol prohibition. Why aren’t drugs held to the same standard?
During prohibition, alcohol was easily obtainable. But instead of buying from privately owned, publicly regulated industries, citizens were forced to buy from criminals and traffickers. In turn, they funded criminal black market cartels instead of the economy. (The Canadian Samuel Bronfman, founder of what became Seagram, was one such “criminal,” who made his fortune illegally importing alcohol into the U.S.). Besides the uptick in crime, the law was so unpopular and so flagrantly violated that prohibition was repealed just 13 years later in 1933.
The result of the drug war is strikingly similar. In 2016, the government spent more than $50 billion in its vain efforts and arrested more than 1,572,579 citizens, 84 percent of whom were arrested solely for possession. More than 200,000 students lost federal financial aid eligibility because of drug convictions, while the number of drug overdoses in 2016 hit a staggering 64,070. Yet it is strikingly clear that government crackdown is not in any way halting the drug trade worldwide.
In fact, drug criminalization is little more than the state protecting its citizens from their own choices, and then making other citizens pay for that protection. In "Free to Choose" the economist Milton Friedman, a strong advocate for drug legalization, once said, “I do not think it is moral to inflict costs on other people to protect individuals from their own choices.” I couldn’t agree more.
This is not to say that all regulations should be done away with. There is a clear consensus that it is necessary to criminalize drunk driving because it puts innocent citizens at risk, so why not adopt similar laws for irresponsible use of drugs, much like the legal marijuana states have done to great success?
Those who say that full drug legalization would unleash chaos in the streets don’t have to look much further than Portugal, which decriminalized all drugs in 2001, and doesn’t prosecute anyone possessing less than a 10-day supply of any substance.
The rate of HIV infections has plummeted from 1,016 to just 56 in 2012.
Overdose deaths have dropped from 80 to just 16 in 2012. Portugal’s drug-induced death rate is five times lower than that of the European Union’s.
Most surprisingly, adult drug use has been cut in half. Today the country counts about 50,000 heroin users down from 100,000 in the pre-decriminalization days. Most users are in ongoing substitution treatment such as methadone maintenance and, depending on the severity of their addiction, are given varying degrees of psychological, and medical treatment.
At the same time, Portugal has continued to arrest and prosecute illegal drug dealers and traffickers, whose numbers have also plummeted.
Besides the money saved by curtailing the War on Drugs, the U.S. would have other significant benefits from drug legalization. It could slash the number of citizens currently in prison. Our federal prisons hold 207,847 inmates, almost half of them there for drug offenses, mostly possession. State prisons hold more than 1.3 million inmates; 16 percent are there for drug convictions.
Without the criminal incentive to buy or sell drugs, criminal industries would go bankrupt and the widespread violence they bring with them would likely strongly diminish. Drugs themselves would be produced in professional laboratories — not in garages or warehouses — and be distributed in restricted dosages. Their chemical content could be verified and regulated and no longer cut with random substances — poisonous or otherwise — that result in so many unnecessary deaths.
Faced with the overwhelming evidence of the disastrous effect of drug criminalization and the positive impact of its alternative, it is only too clear that Sessions and those that support his misguided effort on marijuana are still trying to fight a 21st-century problem with outdated and obviously vain 20th-century solutions.
It is time for new and modern thinking when it comes to the drug issue, and once more, it seems government has again failed at providing a suitable solution.
Louis Sarkozy is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a student in philosophy and religion at New York University. He is the youngest son of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
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