Sunday, April 19, 2009

You'd Think It Would Be Obvious

It don't make much sense
That common sense
Don't make no sense
No more

--John Prine, "Common Sense"

On Friday I heard a NPR interview with a representative of the Drug Enforcement Agency discussing the Mexican drug wars. The representative described the drug cartels as highly sophisticated operations with greater firepower than the Mexican government and ranked heroin and marijuana as the most profitable illegal drug export(600 to 700 percent ROI, eat your heart out, investors everywhere else) to the US. The interview also acknowledged the US great demand for drugs and the dilemma it poses when the suppliers are so highly militarized.

During the piece I wanted to yell into the radio, “Just fucking legalize the stuff!” It would at once wipe out the drug cartels, just as the end of alcohol prohibition ended organized crime’s monopoly on alcohol distribution. Yeah, I know that drugs pose physical and social dangers but so do alcohol and legalized gambling. We seem to have managed those issues tolerably. The DEA guy even noted that regular drug use is limited to a small percentage of the population; problems caused by drug use are not likely to increase or rival the social consequences of alcohol. An intelligent nation can certainly manage marijuana, which poses less danger than alcohol, the true “gateway drug”. Regulating heroin and other drugs will require more care but it’s not impossible. Regardless of the risks, which are pretty minimal, the benefits will be great compared to the costs and consequences of prohibition.

With legalization, the drug cartels’ unique skills—violence, intimidation, bribery, to name just a few—will suddenly no longer be required to distribute drugs. Any number of enterprises will spring up to do so legally. There’s plenty good money to be made selling addictive, pleasure-giving products. Legal entrepreneurs will not need the weaponry, stealth and extra-legal connections secrecy now required; they can trade openly. Best of all for the public, the trade will be brought into the taxable economy (a “sin tax”, at that, one that is more easily raised). Besides the revenue, legalizing drugs will free up vast public safety resources as police at all levels can concentrate on serious crime. Legalization won’t empty the prisons but it will lessen the crowding.

Drug use is a public health and educational issue. People can make their own choices, just as they do in many other aspects of life. Regulatory and informational programs can be developed to address social and physical consequences of these substances, just as we do now for a wide variety of potentially dangerous substances such as tobacco, alcohol and countless prescription medications.

In these first months of Barack Obama’s presidency, with the nation facing very difficult and unsettling times, talk is rife with comparisons to Franklin Roosevelt’s Hundred Days. Less noted among those days’ achievements is the end of Prohibition when America’s demand for intoxicating substances put an end to the “Noble Experiment” that encouraged widespread disrespect for law and sparked gun battles in America’s streets.

We should be so smart


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