As the drug violence continues to escalate and the American economy continues to decline, the debate over legalizing drugs has heated up once again.
The basic economic argument for legalized drugs is that doing so will save law enforcement money and that taxing such drugs will bring in revenue. Critics point out that the taxes on alcohol and tobacco only pay a fraction of the cost of dealing the problems these legal drugs generate. In reply, the illegal drugs do not generate any income for dealing with the problems they generate. As such, taxing them would at least provide some income for dealing with the problems they generate.
The basic moral arguments for legalizing drugs are that doing do will reduced the harms generated in the current system (drug violence, imprisoning of non-violent people for drug crimes, and so on) and that people have a moral right to use such drugs (just as much as they have a right to the legal drugs).
While these are appealing arguments, it is important to consider what it is that makes drugs bad.
The first thing that is bad about drugs is the physical damage they do directly to the body. Grossly oversimplying things, drugs are known as intoxicants for a reason-many of them work by making the body toxic (that is, by poisoning the body). As such, it is hardly shocking that drugs can do short and long term damage to the body. For example, alcohol is well known for causing liver damage and pot has a lasting impact on memory. The delivery system of drugs often do damage as well. For example, the smoke that delivers the nicotine or THC can cause serious problems with the respiratory system. As another example, needles can transmit various diseases, such as HIV.
As the above examples show, legal drugs do considerable physical damage to the user. Illegal drugs, such as heroin, Ecstasy, and crystal meth, can do considerably more damage than the legal drugs. However, the most contested illegal drug, marijuana seems no more harmful than alcohol and tobacco. If the direct harm of something serves as grounds for making it illegal, then tobacco, alcohol, cars, and junk food should all be outlawed. After all, these things kill many people each year. If we do set a threshold of harm as the basis for legality, then it seems likely that some illegal drugs (mainly pot) would fall under that threshold and thus should be legal. Really dangerous drugs would, of course, remain illegal. Naturally, setting the threshold for harm would be challenging-it would have to be set so that cars, alcohol, tobacco and junk food would all be legal, despite their massive death tolls. Or, we could set the threshold lower at the price of outlawing these killer things.
The second thing that is bad about drugs are their indirect harms. These include a multitude of things. One of these is that excessive drug use can come to dominate a person’s life, leading them to fail in their responsibilities and to live a life that is not worthy of a human being. Of course, this is not a problem unique to illegal drugs. Many people have been lead down the path of ruin by their overwhelming desire for money, sex, alcohol, power or fame. People always seem quite able to find something to ruin their lives and it seems unlikely that legalizing drugs will significantly increase this tendency.
There is also the concern that people will harm themselves or others while under the influence of drugs. Of course, this same concern applies to alcohol-something that is often involved in traffic fatalities.
Another indirect harm is crime. People who use drugs sometimes turn to crime to get the money they need to buy drugs. Of course, people turn to crime to get things that are legal-so this is not a unique problem for illegal drugs. In fact, making them legal would lower the prices and thus probably reduce such crime.
Another significant part of drug crime involves those who deal drugs. These people use violence against their competition and the police. While legal business do engage in violence (see, for example how some companies operate overseas), that is fairly rare. For example, you do not see folks from Bush shooting it out with the folks from microbreweries. So, legalizing drugs and making them a legitimate business would reduce such violence. Of course, there would still be plenty of corruption and other misdeeds-but that is preferable to people being gunned down in the streets.
Much of drug crime arises simply because drugs are illegal. People do point to use and small time selling as harms because these are illegal. However, the main harm seems to be that resources are being expended to deal with small time dealers and users that could be better used against serious crimes. We are also overloading our prisons with such criminals. This wastes resources and also does serious social harm by removing people from the community, by helping to transform such people into real criminals, and by making it difficult for such people to get jobs after they are arrested (because of the criminal record). This is, of course, a straightforward matter: does locking people up for small time dealing and drug use do more harm than good? The evidence seems to be that it creates far more harm.
Another indirect harm that people consider is the moral harm. Some folks see drug use as inherently immoral and regard tolerating it as damaging to society. Of course, many of these folk are fine with alcohol and tobacco.
The moral concern is a legitimate one. However, to use this to justify keeping drugs illegal requires either arguing why alcohol and tobacco should be legal or arguing that they should also be illegal. This could be done by arguing that illegal drugs are relevantly different from the legal drugs.
In many cases, people do make such arguments. In the case of hard drugs like heroin and crystal meth, the arguments seem quite reasonable. In the case of marijuana, the argument seems rather weak. People often make such an argument by comparing excessive marijuana use to moderate alcohol or tobacco use. However, the proper comparison would involve comparing the same level of usage-how, for example, one joint stacks up against a bottle of whiskey.
One of the main concerns of legalization is that it will increase the availability and use of drugs, thus increasing the harms generated by the drugs. Of course, this leads to two obvious questions. First, would legalization increase use? Second, would the harms of legalization outweigh the benefits?
In regards to the first question, intuitively one would expect an increase in use. After all, if a person can pick up a joint where she can buy a six pack, people will probably consume more drugs.
Of course, getting drugs is really, really easy. When I was in high school, college, and grad school, pot and other drugs were easily available. In fact, when I was in college I would have had to go to all the way to Big Bear to buy a beer, but pot was always available next door or down the hall. Even today I could make a call and have a bag of pot in fifteen minutes-and I don’t even do drugs or have any special involvement with drugs. It is just that everyone knows someone who sells or knows someone who knows someone who sells (or who shares). Even if you think that you don’t know anyone like that, ask around a bit and prepare to be surprised.
There is also the concern that legalizing drugs will make it easy for kids to get drugs. The obvious reply to that claim is that it is already easy for kids to get pot. I’m from tiny Maine town and went to tiny schools, but pot was readily available to the kids. I’m confident that hasn’t changed at all. At worst, legalization would leave availability the same. Kids would still smoke pot, but now they’d get it the same way they get alcohol.
While I am for legalizing certain drugs, I am, oddly enough, an anti-drug person. Drugs damage the body and mind. They often rob people of what is best in life. They do a great deal of harm to society. They are, in short, a scourge. However, our war on drugs has not helped and has, in fact, made things worse. As such, I am in favor of the lesser evil-while still recognizing that it is a evil.