For sure, as Office of National Drug Control Policy Director John P. Walters recently pointed out in the National Review, “legalization has enticed intelligent commentators for years, no doubt because it offers, on the surface, a simple solution to a complex problem.” But Walters adds that “reasoned debate on the consequences usually dampens enthusiasm, leaving many erstwhile proponents feeling mugged by reality.”
Just for starters, drug use would increase if it were legalized. The bedrock economic law of supply and demand guarantees that narcotics would become cheaper and easier to get once unencumbered by legal risk and promoted by the great American marketing machine.
The effect would be ruinous, even in the case of “soft” drugs like marijuana, which is already responsible for nearly two-thirds of individuals who meet psychiatric criteria for substance-abuse treatment. And marijuana is a widely-acknowledged “gateway” drug; In Holland, where it was legalized in 1976, heroin addiction levels subsequently tripled.
Fortunately, while few would argue that victory is within sight, pessimism over the future of the war on drugs has been vastly overstated. Consider:
* The claim is often made that hundreds of thousands of purportedly harmless, “recreational” marijuana users are behind bars, straining judicial resources and diverting the attention of law enforcement from more serious crimes. But Walters points out that fewer than 1 percent of those imprisoned for drug offenses are low-level marijuana users, and many of them have “pleaded down” to a marijuana charge to avoid other, weightier convictions. “The vast majority of those in prison on drug convictions,” he says, “are true criminals involved in drug trafficking, repeat offenses, or violent crime.”
* Proponents of legalization also argue that because about half of all referrals for substance-abuse treatment come from the criminal justice system, the law is more of a problem than marijuana itself. But the same is true of referrals for alcohol treatment, and no one argues that alcoholism is a fiction created by the courts. Marijuana’s role in emergency-room visits has tripled over the past decade, not because judges are sending patients to the hospital, but because of the well-documented increasing potency of the drug.
* In surveys, eight times as many Americans report regular use of alcohol than of marijuana. The law is a big part of the reason why. Far from a hopeless battle, the war on drugs has made significant progress. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, overall drug abuse is down by more than a third in the last twenty years. Cocaine use in particular has dropped by an astounding 70 percent.
* Like the battle against cancer and other diseases, this war will and must continue. The alternative is too dreadful to contemplate. As Walters puts it, “Drug legalizers will not be satisfied with a limited distribution of medical marijuana, nor will they stop at legal marijuana for sale in convenience stores … Using the discourse of rights without responsibilities, the effort strives to establish an entitlement to addictive substances. The impact will be devastating.”