Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The U.N. on Drugs

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has gone down to Mexico and conceded the obvious, that Mexico’s hideous problems with gang violence are intimately linked to the enormous U.S. demand for illegal drugs. Unfortunately, she neglected to concede something which ought to be equally obvious, namely that making those drugs illegal in the first place causes more problems than it solves.

The debate rages on between those who think that just a little more repression will allow us to lick this thing and those, like me, who think it’s futile to treat a public health problem as a criminal problem. The current issue of The Economist carries responses in its Letters section to the call it issued a week ago for some form of legalization, and one of the responses provides a good illustration of the old lame arguments wielded by the Prohibitionists.

A spokesman for the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime writes, “Drugs are controlled because they are harmful, they are not harmful because they are controlled.” Well, er, yes. Thanks for clarifying that. Nobody’s claiming that drugs are harmless. The case for legalization does not rest on the idea that drugs don’t hurt people. It rests on the idea that apocalyptic levels of violence, astronomical enrichment of thugs and relentless subversion of legitimate states hurt more people, more seriously, than the struggles with addiction of a minority of users. These evils are the direct effect of the illegal status of drugs and have nothing to do with the effects on the user of the drugs themselves. Criminalizing trade in sought-after goods only insures that the trade will be controlled by the most ruthless criminals, and that they will grow rich. That is the crux of the argument.

The constant harping on the harmfulness of drug use is a massive and dishonest distraction on the part of the drug warriors. The real issue is the catastrophic legal, social and economic effects of prohibition, and there is no greater illustration of willful, stubborn, narrow-minded obtuseness than the refusal of the drug warriors to confront or even acknowledge the issue. The standard reply to arguments for legalization is the disgraceful smear that its advocates are either drug users themselves or are in denial about the harmfulness of drugs.

I’m neither. I’ve seen the effects of drug addiction at first hand. I know that cocaine or heroin or meth can ruin a life. But here’s the thing—so can alcohol. I’ve seen that, too. And we gave up on criminalization of alcohol because we saw that it created more problems than it solved. What is it going to take for our decision-makers to confront the similar but much larger problems spawned by the Drug War? Prohibition made Chicago a cesspool of corruption. Its modern version threatens to take out Colombia, Mexico, Afghanistan...

The esteemed spokesman for the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime continues: “The fact that certain transactions are hard to control does not mean that they should be made legal. I doubt that The Economist would support the legalisation of paedophilia, human-trafficking or arms smuggling as ‘the least bad solution’.” No, probably not. But pedophilia and sexual slavery are wrong because they have victims. People’s rights are infringed. A child is raped, a woman held in bondage. That’s why they are crimes. (For that matter, the laws against murder are imperfectly enforceable. But we try, because murder is the ultimate infringement of rights.)

But when a junkie sticks that needle into his vein, it’s hard to say whose rights are being infringed, even if addiction is involved. The junkie may have surrendered his autonomy to an extent (though never completely, or else nobody would overcome addiction), but that does not constitute one person’s infringement of another’s rights. And properly considered, our criminal code should be set up to protect against the violation of rights, not the consequences of bad decisions.

The usual reply is to sneer at the notion of ‘victimless crimes’ and point out that drug use has ripple effects on people beyond the user. These, it is alleged, are the victims, and they justify the ferocious repression unleashed in an attempt to control the drug trade. But guess what? The list of behaviors that have ripple effects is endless. Alcohol use certainly does. And where those effects lead identifiably to infringements of others’ rights, as in drunk driving, we properly police them. And we would continue to police the identifiable external effects of drug use were they to be legalized.

What we wouldn’t continue to do if we were to abandon the futile and oppressive War on Drugs is to imprison people who have never used violence or fraud against another, subsidize the enrichment of criminal gangs, provide powerful incentives for law enforcement corruption, and discredit the rule of law by insisting that what you choose to put into your system is the government’s business.

Nobody’s claiming that legalization would be a panacea—it would bring a host of new problems that would have to be managed, from increased addiction to the creation of a sensible regulation regime. And we’ll be dealing with the newly enriched drug thugs and their heirs for generations, just as we’re still contending with Capone’s successors in Chicago. But these problems couldn’t possibly be worse than what we have now. Ask the people in Juarez or Tijuana or Freetown or Kabul.

And do me a favor and don’t insult my intelligence or my good faith by bringing up the same old discredited arguments and smears. If you’re against legalization, it's time to raise your game.

Sam Reaves