Sunday, April 30, 2006

Drug Legalization

The Mexican assembly has passed legislation that legalizes the possession of small quantities of illegal drugs, while stiffening penalties for possession of larger quantities (presumed to be for resale). Political and lamestream media reaction has been largely (and predictably) negative, with most of the commentary focusing on the incentive thus provided for Americans in border areas to go to Mexico to purchase and use drugs.

I can’t get too excited about this change in Mexico’s laws. It’s actually less of a change than most people realize, as for many years the police and judges in Mexico have had the discretion to not press charges on people possessing small quantities of drugs for personal use, and that discretion is frequently used. The new law really just makes that discretion mandatory, and then cracks down fairly hard on trafficking — not a big change from the current status, and in my own personal view, the change is in the wrong direction.

My own views on drug legalization are essentially the usual libertarian view: I don’t believe the government has any business regulating any activity that does not harm others. I’m not a user of illegal drugs myself, so I don’t have a personal dog in this fight. If an adult wants to harm him or her self by abusing a dangerous drug, I think that person should have the right to do so. Think of it as evolution at work.

Furthermore, in the case of drugs that are declared illegal, the government is doing demonstrable harm to its citizens. By criminalizing the use of a drug, the government doesn’t stop people from using it — just as prohibition didn’t stop people from drinking alcohol. Anybody who want the drug badly enough is going to find a way to get it — from a criminal enterprise, by definition. When, as with either alcohol or illegal drugs, the overall demand in the country is large, then huge (and hugely profitable) criminal enterprises spring up to service that demand. This is as inevitable and predictable as the sunrise tomorrow morning. Equally inevitable is the premium price that will be placed on the drug — and this manufacturers criminal behavior from drug users who are desparate to finance their next dose. This surge in criminality was experienced during prohibition, and it’s being experienced in the U.S. today — depending on whose estimate you want to believe, between half and three quarters of all property crimes, and a similar fraction of violent crimes, are related to drug usage or drug trafficking. Our overcrowded prisons are full of people convicted of such crimes.

Several things would most likely happen (I don’t think there’s any way to know for sure unless we tried it) if we decriminalized drug use:

— We’d have to set up the same sorts of rules we have today for minimum drinking age, to minimize the exposure of people to drugs when they’re too young to make rational decisions about such things. Yes, all such regimes are imperfect, and some abuses would occur anyway — just as they do with alcohol. It seems likely to me that society would survive such abuses just fine — and when they occur outside the stigma of criminality that they do today, they’ll be all that much easier to uncover and deal with.

— The prices of drugs will fall dramatically, and the quality and consistency will rise dramatically. That’s because the production will no longer be illegal, and legitimate companies (much like the alcoholic beverage companies) will make a business out of the entire process of production and distribution. And naturally the government will require safe drugs with consistent dosages (much as alcoholic beverages are all clearly marked with the percentage of alcohol). That means drug users will no longer take unknowing risks when they use their drugs; today there are no guarantees about the dosage in illegally acquired drugs.

— I have no clear notion of what will happen to the number of drug users. The knee-jerk reaction is that the number will go dramatically up, but that reaction ignores the ease and low risk with which one can obtain drugs illegally today. My bet would be that we’d see only a small change, as for the most part the people inclined to use drugs are already doing so. The much lower prices might encourage more drug use, although the experience of the Netherlands (which decriminalized most drug use years ago) seems to argue against that difference being very large.

— Overall levels of violent crimes and property crimes should be greatly reduced. This effect is a good enough reason all by itself to justify decriminalizing drugs, in my opinion.

— The corruption and other threats to the rule of law inherent in large-scale illegal drug production and distribution, in this country and in other countries involved, would be great reduced or even eliminated. Like the preceding effect, I think this is reason enough all by itself to justify decriminalizing drugs.

But will decriminalization ever happen? Every poll I’ve seen on the subject shows depressingly little (from my perspective) support in the American public for decriminalization. I have a difficult time understanding this, especially when it comes to comparatively harmless drugs such as marijuana — why on earth does the American public (some 40% of whom are marijuana users!) see a clear moral distinction between alcohol use and marijuana use? It’s easier for me to understand the public view when it comes to addictive drugs — there’s much more on both sides of the balance there.

But for me, my libertarian views far outweigh all the other arguments (including those I’ve discussed above): in my ideal democracy, the government would keep its nose completely out of my personal behavior (so long as that behavior affects only me or others voluntarily choosing to participate in it with me). By criminalizing drugs, the government is telling me that I can’t do something to myself, even when it does no harm to anyone else — and I object to that!

1 comment:

  1. In the old blog, Anonymous said:
    I don’t think decriminalization would lead to many of situations you describe. Legalization would probably lead to those scenarios. Decriminalization only allows for users to possess small amounts of drugs for personal use. But possession of large quantities and selling of drugs is still illegal, so there is no legal means for users to obtain drugs. I also think it is unfair to say that drug use harms no one but the user. In a perfect world this may be true, but in reality the circumstances surrounding drug use are much more complicated. It might be the case that some people can use some drugs and not effect others, but the majority of drug users (especially those using anything other than alcohol and marijuana) will effect (many times negatively, ie harm) others. It is often not the drug use itself, but consequences of the drug use that will harm and effect others, but in the real world there is no way to seperate the two. My taking heroin doesn’t directly effect you. But if I steal to obtain heroin it might effect you. Just because I can legally use heroin under decriminalization or legalization does not mean I can afford it all of a sudden and not need to commit crimes to obtain it.