Fisking An Argument For Drug Legalization

Today, I ran across a column by Neal Peirce in the Seattle Times called Legalizing street drugs an experiment worth considering.

Since I’m an ardent supporter of the war on drugs, I thought it might be a good idea to fisk the article. Peirce’s words appear in italics and mine follow…

WASHINGTON — Can a single city do anything to change drug policies that are delivering terror to our inner-city streets, diverting police, clogging our courts, breaking up families, and making a once-proud America quite literally the incarceration capital of the world?

Arrest more drug dealers? Give them longer sentences? Three strikes and you’re out laws?

It’s tough because federal and state drug laws, passed by tragically misguided “law-and-order” politicians, are highly intrusive. But Syracuse, N.Y., with a detailed analysis of drug-law impact by outgoing City Auditor Minchin Lewis, followed up by recent City Council hearings, is courageously asking tough questions and searching for alternatives.

Lewis’ audit, inspired by Syracuse drug reformer Nicolas Eyle, focused on the Syracuse police department. It discovered that 22 percent of the department’s 28,800 arrests in a single year were for drug-related incidents, more than arrests for assaults, disturbances and larcenies combined. Close to 2,000 persons were charged with possession or sale of marijuana, a substance many claim is no more if not less dangerous than alcohol.

We always hear that “Oh, marijuana is no worse than alcohol or cigarettes.” Ok, let’s say that were true: how many people die because of cancer caused by cigarettes or because of drunk driving every year? Heck, alcohol did so much damage to our country that we tried to ban it (and failed because it was already so accepted by society). And the U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona supports banning cigarettes now. Given that, even if marijuana is no worse than alcohol or cigarettes, why would we want to make it easier to obtain?

Lewis found that drug arrests were focused in six poor, heavily black inner-city neighborhoods. Police raids in search of evidence were rendering housing units, many government-owned, uninhabitable, and forcing many families to split up because of government rules evicting drug users from public housing.

If Syracuse’s drug raid and arrest policy is intended to reduce drug use, the Lewis audit concluded, “it is not achieving its goal. The drug activity is continuing with an ever-increasing spiral of violence.”

Do you think it’s a coincidence that poor, violent, crime ridden areas are riddled with drugs? Do you think a guy hitting a crack pipe all day is going to be a model citizen? And even if the government sells heroin, it’s still going to cost money that some people are going to acquire by robbing people’s houses. Have people come-to-terms with the fact that legalizing drugs will make them more widely available and will likely mean that the misery that drugs are associated with will likewise spread?

It’s true, Lewis concluded, that the city can’t change federal or state drug laws. But it can use its authority over police to reduce the emphasis on drug-related arrests and focus on “harm reduction and prevention efforts rather than absolute prohibition.”

You know, maybe it’s just me, but when the police wave at the drug dealers who are selling a 14-year-old kid crack and just drive on by because they’re reducing their “emphasis on drug-related arrests,” it’s not exactly what I’d call “harm reduction.”

“City Council member Stephanie Miner said she found citizens typically unconcerned about people using drugs in the confines of their homes, but deeply alarmed by the violence visited on their neighborhoods by drug dealing on the street.

“The main effect of prohibition is to drive the market underground,” Jeffrey Miron, a Boston University economist and drug trade expert, told the Syracuse council hearing in October. Like the alcohol trade in the Roaring Twenties, he said, narcotics rendered illegal by federal decree soar in price and have created an opportunity for traffickers and dealers interested in getting a share of the $65-billion-a-year nationwide market.”

Yes, and by making carjacking, robbery, & murder-for-hire illegal, we’ve driven the market underground and “created an opportunity” for people looking to get a share of those markets. That’s a good thing. Better underground and hence, happening less frequently, than above ground and happening more often.

“Jack Cole, the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition who served 12 years as an undercover agent for the New Jersey State Police, told the hearing: “There is such an obscene profit motive that an army of police officers will never arrest our way out of it. … Every arrest is a job opening.”

Eyle, head of Syracuse-based ReconsiDer, is meeting again with the City Council to discuss such steps as a resolution asking the federal and state governments to change drug policies that are merely stimulating black-market activity, crime and violence. Instructions to divert Syracuse’s police to more important tasks, perhaps lowering the priority of marijuana arrests in the city, will be considered.

“This is a unique opportunity to change the image of the city, from an undistinguished Rust Belt city to a progressive community actively working to improve itself,” Eyle argues. But it’s clear his long-term goal is much broader: lifting drug prohibition altogether.”

Yes, nothing will improve the image of a city faster than announcing that it’ll be the one place in the state where you won’t get arrested for smoking pot. That’ll lead to every pothead, junky, and scumbag in the state who will flock into the city and within 6 months, ordinary people will be afraid to go into the parks, you’ll have thugs congregating in the streets, and you’ll see kids getting high by the jungle gym when you take your child to the playground.

Personally, I’d say that if you don’t have enough police to handle arresting people who use marijuana, then the solution is to hire more police.

“What would that mean? Eyle suggests European-style “harm reduction,” recognizing that a segment of the population will always use illegal drugs, so that government’s role is to reduce the harm to the user and society. A possible approach: decriminalizing personal possession of drugs, leaving importation and manufacture and sale of significant amounts illegal. There also would be voluntary treatment programs for addicts.”

There’s always some segment of the population that will do something illegal whether you’re talking murder, robbery, rape, or boinking farm yard animals. But that, in and of itself, isn’t a reason to make the activity legal. Heck, we could drop the crime rate to zero tomorrow — if we simply said, “Everything’s legal.”

What about total “legalization”? It’s a good possibility, says Eyle, if we revise, hand-in-hand, appropriate regulations. The parallels in his argument are intriguing:

“We currently regulate alcohol to ensure its purity and to keep it out of the hands of children. We regulate its points of distribution and hours of sale. We tax it. Do we still have an alcohol problem? You bet. Can kids obtain alcohol? Absolutely.”

But, Eyle asks, do we have “a large market in every community selling alcohol to minors? No. Are beer salesmen spraying bullets at each other to settle arguments over shelf space in the supermarket? No.”

There’s no need for “a large market in every community selling alcohol to minors,” because alcohol is so readily available now that any kid can easily get a friend, or a friend’s friend, to just go buy it for them at an ABC store. Do we want crack, cocaine, and heroin to be that readily available to a bunch of young kids who think they’re invincible and are looking to try new things?

Legalization, by this reasoning, is OK, and good for us all, if it can successfully eliminate the gruesome waves of crime that surround today’s illegal drug market. The “how” could be complex: Does government do the selling, or does the free market? Is advertising permitted? How do rules differ for marijuana, cocaine, heroin?

But just think what legalization could deliver: radically reduced incentive to crime, far safer streets and cities, fewer shattered families, less-crowded and costly prisons breeding new criminals, more racial equity. In a society that prizes freedom and innovation, I’d call this an experiment we owe ourselves.

It is correct that legalization would reduce violent crime. However, legalization would also lead to an explosion in drug use, the consequences of which would be highly likely to dwarf the gains we made by getting the dealers off the street.

America already has a serious drug problem. Now imagine that these drugs are legalized and thus become: legal, safer, cheaper, easier to obtain, and more societally accepted. How can that do anything but make the number of people using these drugs skyrocket?

Would that really be good for America? A huge increase in junkies on the street? New armies of bleary eyed Ricky Williams clones who’ll give up their careers & millions of dollars so they can sit on the couch and get high? Don’t we have enough crack babies as it is?

Legalizing illegal drugs would be an enormous mistake that would do terrible damage to our country over time.

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