A new conventional wisdom is on the rise: Drug prohibition, or “the war on drugs,” is a costly flop. It not only failed to cut drug use and associated social ills significantly but has also imposed additional social costs — or “catastrophic harm,” as my colleague Radley Balko put it — far exceeding the benefits. Those costs include violent crime linked to the black-market drug trade as well as the mass arrest and incarceration of small-time users, a disproportionate number of whom are African-American.
It follows that the only solution is legalization, at least of marijuana and maybe other substances. Apropos of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, for example, former congressman Barney Frank suggested legalizing heroin. Then we could abandon the fool’s errand of prohibition and concentrate on “harm reduction” strategies such as treatment.
There’s one problem: the tendency of legalization advocates to counter anti-drug hyperbole with hyperbole of their own.
The data don’t actually show that drug prohibition is futile, that its negative side effects are worsening or that legalization would eliminate the social-policy dilemmas and trade-offs posed by drug abuse.
The data do make one thing clear: If the goal of the war on drugs is to limit demand for drugs, then you can’t say the authorities are losing. According to federally sponsored surveys that track drug usage, the rate of current-month powder and crack cocaine use dropped by half in the past 10 years. Meth use fell by a third; heroin use has remained flat.
It’s a myth that prisons are full of low-level pot smokers.
Less than 1 percent of the state and federal prison population is doing time for pot possession alone; most of these prisoners are dealers who pleaded guilty to possession in return for a lesser sentence, according to the 2012 study “Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know,” published by Oxford University Press.
America’s worst new drug-abuse problem involves a legal substance, opioid painkillers, that’s supposedly available only by prescription. OxyContin and other government-approved pills were linked to 15,500 overdose deaths in 2009.
I don’t mean to suggest that there are no good arguments for legalizing any currently illicit substance. The case for decriminalizing pot is strong, as long as accompanying limitations on use by minors and other regulations have real teeth.
But let’s discuss the issue on its actual merits — and not pretend that legalization is a panacea for drug abuse, and its related social ills, any more than prohibition was, or is.