There are no panaceas in the world but, for social afflictions, legalizing
drugs comes possibly as close as any single policy could. Removing legal
penalties from the production, sale and use of "controlled substances"
would alleviate at least a dozen of our biggest social or political
With proposals for legalization finally in the public eye, there might
be a use for some sort of catalog listing the benefits of legalization.
For advocates, it is an inventory of facts and arguments. For opponents,
it is a record of the problems they might be helping to perpetuate.
The list is intended both as a resource for those wishing to participate in
the legalization debate and as a starting point for those wishing to get
deeper into it.
- Legalizing drugs would make our streets and homes safer.
As Jeffrey Rogers Hummel notes ("Heroin: The Shocking Story," April 1988),
estimates vary widely for the proportion of violent and property crime
related to drugs. Forty percent is a midpoint figure. In an October 1987
survey by Wharton Econometrics for the U.S. Customs Service, the 739 police
chiefs responding "blamed drugs for a fifth of the murders and rapes, a
quarter car thefts, two-fifths of robberies and assaults and half the
nation's burglaries and thefts."
The theoretical and statistical links between drugs and crime are well
established. In a 2 1/2-year study of Detroit crime, Lester P. Silverman,
former associate director of the National Academy of Sciences' Assembly of
Behavior and Social Sciences, found that a 10 percent increase in the price
of heroin alone "produced an increase of 3.1 percent total property crimes
in poor nonwhite neighborhoods." Armed robbery jumped 6.4 percent and
simple assault by 5.6 percent throughout the city.
The reasons are not difficult to understand. When law enforcement
restricts the supply of drugs, the price of drugs rises. In 1984, a
kilogram of cocaine worth $4000 in Colombia sold at wholesale for $30,000,
and at retail in the United States for some $300,000. At the time a Drug
Enforcement Administration spokesman noted, matter-of-factly, that the
wholesale price doubled in six months "due to crackdowns on producers and
smugglers in Columbia and the U.S." There are no statistics indicating the
additional number of people killed or mugged thanks to the DEA's crackdown
For heroin the factory-to-retail price differential is even greater.
According to U.S. News & World report, in 1985 a gram of pure heroin in
Pakistan cost $5.07, but it sold for $2425 on the street in America--nearly
a five-hundredfold jump.
The unhappy consequence is that crime also rises, for at least four
- Addicts must shell out hundreds of times the cost of goods, so they
often must turn to crime to finance their habits. The higher the price
goes, the more they need to steal to buy the same amount.
- At the same time, those who deal or purchase the stuff find themselves
carrying extremely valuable goods, and become attractive targets for
- Police officers and others suspected of being informants for law
enforcement quickly become targets for reprisals.
- The streets become literally a battleground for "turf" among competing
dealers, as control over a particular block or intersection can net
thousands of additional drug dollars per day.
Conversely, if and when drugs are legalized, their price will collapse
and so will the sundry drug-related motivations to commit crime. Consumers
will no longer need to steal to support their habits. A packet of cocaine
will be as tempting to grab from its owner as a pack of cigarettes is
today. And drug dealers will be pushed out of the retail market by known
retailers. When was the last time we saw employees of Rite Aid pharmacies
shoot it out with Thrift Drugs for a corner storefront?
When drugs become legal, we will be able to sleep in our homes and walk
the streets more safely. As one letter-writer to the Philadelphia Inquirer
put it, "law-abiding citizens will be able to enjoy not living in fear of
assault and burglary."
- It would put an end to prison overcrowding.
Prison overcrowding is a serious and persistent problem. It makes the
prison environment, violent and faceless to begin with, even more dangerous
According to the 1988 Statistical Abstract of the United States, between
1979 and 1985 the number of people in federal and state prisons and local
jails grew by 57.8 percent, nine time faster than the general population.
Governments at all levels keep building more prisons, but the number of
prisoners keeps outpacing the capacity to hold them. According to the
Federal Bureau of Prisons' 1985 Statistical Report, as of September 30 of
that year federal institutions held 35,959 prisoners-41 percent over the
rated prison capacity of 25,638. State prisons were 114 percent of
capacity in 1986.
Of 31,346 sentenced prisoners in federal institutions, those in for drug
law violations were the largest single category, 9487. (A total of 4613
were in prison but not yet sentenced under various charges.)
Legalizing drugs would immediately relieve the pressure on the prison
system, since there would no longer be "drug offenders" to incarcerate.
And, since many drug users would no longer need to commit violent or
property crime to pay for their habits, there would be fewer "real"
criminals to house in the first place. Instead of building more prisons, we
could pocket the money and still be safer.
Removing the 9487 drug inmates would leave 26,472. Of those, 7200 were
in for assault, burglary, larceny-theft, or robbery. If the proportion of
such crimes that is related to drugs is 40 percent, without drug laws
another 2900 persons would never have made it to federal prison. The
inmates who remained would be left in a less cruel, degrading environment.
If we repealed the drug laws, we could eventually bring the prison
population down comfortably below the prison's rated capacity.
- Drug legalization would free up police resources to fight crimes
against people and property.
The considerable police efforts now expended against drug activity and
drug-related crime could be redirected toward protecting innocent people
from those who would still commit crime in the absence of drug laws. The
police could protect us more effectively, as it could focus resources on
catching rapists, murderers and the remaining perpetrators of crimes
against people and property.
- It would unclog the court system.
If you are accused of a crime, it takes months to bring you to trial.
Guilty or innocent, you must live with the anxiety of impending trial until
the trial finally begins. The process is even more sluggish for civil
There simply aren't enough judges to handle the skyrocketing caseload.
Because it would cut crime and eliminate drugs as a type of crime,
legislation would wipe tens of thousands of cases off the court dockets
across the continent, permitting the rest to move sooner and faster.
Prosecutors would have more time to handle each case; judges could make
more considered opinions.
Improved efficiency at the lower levels would have a ripple effect on
higher courts. Better decisions in the lower courts would yield fewer
grounds for appeals, reduing the caseloads of appeals courts; and in any
event there would be fewer cases to review in the first place.
- It would reduce official corruption.
Drug-related police corruption takes one of two major forms. Police
officers can offer drug dealers protection in their districts for a share
of the profits (or demand a share under threat of exposure). Or they can
seize dealer's merchandise for sale themselves.
Seven current or former Philadelphia police officers were indicted May
31 on charges of falsifying records of money and drugs confiscated from
dealers. During a house search, one man turned over $20,000 he had made
from marijuana sales, but the officers gave him a "receipt" for $1870.
Another dealer, reports The Inquirer, "told the grand jury he was charged
with possession of five pounds of marijuana, although 11 pounds were found
in his house."
In Miami, 59 officers have been fired or suspended since 1985 for
suspicion of wrongdoing. The police chief and investigators expect the
number eventually to approach 100. As The Palm Beach Post reported, "That
would mean about one in 100 officers on the thousand man force will have
been tainted by one form of scandal or another."
Most of the 59 have been accused of trafficking, possessing or using
illegal drugs. In the biggest single case, 17 officers allegedly
participated in a ring that stole $15 million worth of cocaine from dealers
"and even traffic violators."
What distinguishes the Miami scandal is that "Police are alleged to be
drug traffickers themselves, not just protectors of criminals who are
engaged in illegal activities," said The post. According to James Frye, a
criminologist at American University in Washington, the gravity of the
situation in Miami today is comparable to Prohibition-era Chicago in the
1920s and '30s.
It is apt comparison. And the problem is not limited to Miami and
Philadelphia. The astronomical profits from the illegal drug trade are a
powerful incentive on the part of law enforcement agents to partake from
Legalizing the drug trade outright would eliminate this inducement to
corruption and help to clean up the police's image. Eliminating
drug-related corruption cases would further reduce the strain on the
courts, freeing judges and investigators to handle other cases more
thoroughly and expeditiously.
- Legalization would save tax money.
Efforts to interdict the drug traffic alone cost $6.2 billion in 1986,
according to Wharton Econometrics of Bala Cynwyd, Pa. If we ad the cost of
trying and incarcerating users, traffickers, and those who commit crime to
pay for their drugs, the tab runs well above $10 billion.
The crisis in inmate housing would disappear, saving taxpayers the
expense of building more prisons in the future.
As we've noted above, savings would be redirected toward better police
protection and speedier judicial service. Or it could be converted into
savings for taxpayers. Or the federal portion of the costs could be
applied toward the budget deficit. For a change, it's a happy problem to
ponder. But it takes legalization to make it possible.
- It would cripple organized crime.
The Mafia (heroin), Jamaican gangs (crack), and the Medellin Cartel
(cocaine) stand to lose billions in drug profits from legalization. On a
per-capita basis, members of organized crime, particularly at the top,
stand to lose the most from legalizing the drug trade.
The underworld became big business in the United States when alcohol was
prohibited. Few others would risk setting up the distribution networks,
bribing officials or having to shoot up a policeman or competitor once in a
while. When alcohol was re-legalized, reputable manufacturers took over.
The risk and the high profits went out of the alcohol trade. Even if they
wanted to keep control over it, the gangsters could not have targeted every
manufacturer and every beer store.
The profits from illegal alcohol were minuscule compared to the yield
from today's illegal drugs. They are the underworld's last great,
greatest, source of illegal income--dwarfing anything to be made
fromgambling, prostitution or other vice.
Legalizing drugs would knock out this huge prop from under organized
crime. Smugglers and pushers would have to go aboveboard or go out of
business. There simply wouldn't be enough other criminal endeavors to
employ them all.
If we are concerned about the influence of organized crime on
government, industry and our own personal safety, we could strike no single
more damaging blow against today's gangsters than to legalize drugs.
- Legal drugs would be safer. Legalization is a consumer protection
Because it is illegal, the drug trade today lacks many of the consumer
safety features common to other markets: instruction sheets, warning
labels, product quality control, manufacturer accountability. Driving it
underground makes any product, including drugs, more dangerous than it
needs to be.
Nobody denies that currently illegal drugs can be dangerous. But so can
aspirin, countless other over-the-counter drugs and common household items;
yet the proven hazards of matches, modeling glue and lawn mowers are not
used as reasons to make them all illegal.
Practically anything can kill if used in certain ways. Like heroin,
salt can make you sick or dead if you take enough of it. The point is to
learn what the threshold is, and to keep below it. That many things can
kill is not a reason to prohibit them all--it is a reason to find out how
to handle products to provide the desired action safely. The same goes for
Today's drug consumer literally doesn't know what he's buying. The
stuff is so valuable that sellers have an incentive to "cut" (dilute) the
product with foreign substances that look like the real thing. Most street
heroin is only 3 to 6 percent pure; street cocaine, 10 to 15 percent.
Since purity varies greatly, consumers can never be really sure how much
to take to produce the desired effects. If you're used to 3 percent heroin
and take a 5 percent dose, suddenly you've nearly doubled your intake.
Manufacturers offering drugs on the open market would face different
incentives than pushers. They rely on name-brand recognition to build
market share, and on customer loyalty to maintain it. There would be a
powerful incentive to provide a product of uniform quality: killing
customers or losing them to competitors is not a proven way to success.
Today, dealers can make so much off a single sale that the incentive to
cultivate a clientele is weak. In fact, police persecution makes it
imperative to move on, damn the customers.
Pushers don't provide labels or instructions, let alone mailing
addresses. The illegal nature of the business makes such things
unnecessary or dangerous to the enterprise. After legalization,
pharmaceutical companies could safely try to win each other's customers--or
guard against liability suits--with better information and more reliable
Even pure heroin on the open market would be safer than today's impure
drugs. As long as customers know what they're getting and what it does,
they can adjust their dosages to obtain the intended effect safely.
Information is the best protection against the potential hazards of
drugs or any other product. Legalizing drugs would promote consumer health
- Legalization would help stem the spread of AIDS and other diseases.
As D.R. Blackmon notes ("Moral Deaths," June 1988), drug prohibition
has helped propagate AIDS among intravenous drug users.
Because IV drug users utilize hypodermic needles to inject heroin and
other narcotics, access to needles is restricted. The dearth of needles
leads users to share them. If one IV user has infected blood and some
enters the needle as it is pulled out, the next user may shoot the
infectious agent directly into his own bloodstream.
Before the AIDS epidemic, this process was already known to spread other
diseases, principally hepatitis B. Legalizing drugs would eliminate the
motivation to restrict the sale of hypodermic needles. With needles cheap
and freely available, the drug users would have little need to share them
and risk acquiring someone else's virus.
Despite the pain and mess involved, injection became popular because, as
The Washington Times put it, "that's the way to get the biggest, longest
high for the money." Inexpensive, legal heroin, on the other hand, would
enable customers to get the same effect (using a greater amount) from more
hygienic methods such as smoking or swallowing--cutting further into the
use of needles and further slowing the spread of AIDS.
- Legalization would halt the erosion of other personal liberties.
Hundreds of governments and corporations have used the alleged costs
of drugs to begin testing their employees for drugs. Pennsylvania Rep.
Robert Walker has embarked on a crusade to withhold the federal money
carrot from any company or agency that doesn't guarantee a "drug-free
The federal government has pressured foreign countries to grant access
to bank records so it can check for "laundered" drug money. Because drug
dealers handle lots of cash, domestic banks are now required to report cash
deposits over $10,000 to the Internal Revenue Service for evidence of
The concerns (excesses?) that led to all of these would disappear ipso
facto with drg legalization. Before drugs became big business, investors
could put their money in secure banks abroad without fear of harassment.
Mom-and-pop stores could deposit their cash receipts unafraid that they
might look like criminals.
Nobody makes a test for urine levels of sugar or caffeine a requirement
for employment or grounds for dismissal. However, were they declared
illegal these would certainly become a lot riskier to use, and hence a
possible target for testing "for the sake of our employees." Legalizing
today's illegal drugs would make them safer, deflating the drive to test
for drug use.
- It would stabilize foreign countries and make them safer to live in
and travel to.
The connection between drug traffickers and and guerrilla groups is
fairly well documented (see "One More Reason," August 1987). South
American revolutionaries have developed a symbiotic relationship with with
coca growers and smugglers: the guerrillas protect the growers and
smugglers in echange for cash to finance their subversive activities. in
Peru, competing guerrilla groups, the Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru,
fight for the lucrative right to represent coca farmers before drug
Traffickers themselves are well prepared to defend their crops against
intruding government forces. A Peruvian military helicopter was destroyed
with bazooka fire in March, 1987, and 23 police officers were killed. The
following June, drug dealers attacked a camp of national guardsmen in
Venezuela, killing 13.
In Colombia, scores of police officers, more than 20 judges, two
newspaper editors, the attorney general and the justice minister have been
killed in that country's war against cocaine traffickers. Two supreme
court justices, including the court president, have resigned following
death threats. The Palace of Justice was sacked in 1985 as guerrillas
destroyed the records of dozens of drug dealers.
"This looks like Beirut," said the mayor of Medellin, Colombia, after a
bomb ripped apart a city block where the reputed head of the Medellin
Cartel lives. It "is a waning of where the madness of the violence that
afflicts us can bring us."
Legalizing the international drug trade would affect organized crime and
subversion abroad much as it would in the United States. A major source
for guerrilla funding would disappear. So would the motive for kidnapping
or assassinating officials and private individuals. As in the United
States, ordinary Colombians and Peruvians once again could walk the streets
and travel the roads without fear of drug-related violence. Countries
would no longer be paralyzed by smugglers.
- Legalization would repair U.S. relations with other countries and
curtail anti-American sentiment around the world.
- When Honduran authorities spirited away alleged drug lord Juan Matta
Ballesteros and had him extradited to the United States in April, Hondurans
rioted in the streets and demonstrated for days at the U.S. embassy in
The action violated Honduras's constitution, which prohibits
extradition. Regardless of what Matta may have done, many Hondurans viewed
the episode as a flagrant violation of their little country's laws, just to
satisfy the wishes of the colossus up North.
- When the U.S. government, in July 1986, sent Army troops and
helicopters to raid cocaine factories in Bolivia, Bolivians were outraged.
The constitution "has been trampled," said the president of Bolivia's House
of Representatives. The country's constitution requires congressional
approval for any foreign military presence.
- One thousand coca growers marched through the capital, La Paz,
chanting "Death to the United States" and "Up with Coca" last May in
protest over a U.S.-sponsored bill to prohibit most coca production. In
late June, 5000 angry farmers overran a U.S. Drug Enforcement
Administration jungle base, demanding the 40 American soldiers and drug
agents there leave immediately.
U.S. pressure on foreign governments to fight their domestic drug
industries has clearly reinforced the image of America as an imperialist
bully, blithely indifferent to the concerns of other peoples. To Bolivian
coca farmers, the U.S. government is not a beacon of freedom, but a threat
to their livelihoods. To many Hondurans it seems that their government
will ignore its own constitution on request from Uncle Sam. Leftists
exploit such episodes to fan nationalistic sentiment to promote their
Legalizing the drug trade would remove some of the reasons to hate
America and deprive local politicians of the chance to exploit them. The
U.S. would have a new opportunity to repair its reputation in an atmosphere
of mutual respect.