It is remarkable that after the lessons of alcohol prohibition in the 1920s, the government is still pursuing a “war against drugs." Like alcohol prohibition, the current prohibitions of some drugs have done nothing to reduce demand or consumption while at the same time empowering violent criminals and encouraging the development and production of dangerous drugs that would not be available in a market system. Ending the war on drugs and legalizing all currently prohibited substances would reduce consumption, increase tax revenue, improve the health of addicts, and save a huge amount of money currently spent on the prison system.
Portugal, which has a policy of decriminalization rather than legalization, has had measurable success with their policy. Considering the United States is facing a dire economic situation and has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners, it is worth seriously considering a policy that would reduce the number of people we lock up and yield economic benefits.
In many of the debates surrounding drug legalization too much emphasis is put on marijuana, or the medicinal benefit some currently prohibited substances have. Not enough is said about why some of the currently prohibited substances are as nasty as they are.
Meth is amongst the most dangerous of the currently prohibited drugs. It is highly addictive and physically debilitating. It is exactly what we should expect from a black market. Before the prohibition of cocaine and opium, the drugs crack cocaine, meth, and heroin either did not exist or were medical rarities. However in the 1960s, when the war on drugs began in earnest, each of these substances began to appear. This is a result of economics. Because it was now more dangerous for dealers to sell their product in large bulk they needed to find a way to pack a large hit into smaller and more easily transported products. This economic incentive gave rise to crack cocaine and heroin. Meth, which is an almost uniquely American drug, came into what had traditionally been a cocaine market and has since become a white middleclass drug. A similar pattern was seen during alcohol prohibition, where moonshine was brewed domestically. ‘Moonshine’ developed a reputation for having a worryingly high level of toxins and causing illness. It is worth remembering that even when legal, alcohol is the most dangerous drug in terms of external harm.
Were meth and other currently illegal drugs sold in a free market, the potency of these drugs would diminish. Any pharmaceutical company that wanted to sell heroin or meth domestically would have to go through a number of rigorous measures in order to ensure that they could not be sued over accidental overdose. Not only would the potency of these drugs diminish, but addicts would be more likely to seek treatment were drugs decriminalized or legalized.
Evidence from Portugal indicates that when addicts are treated as patients rather than criminals, they are more likely to seek medical attention at hospitals or rehab.
It should be considered a national disgrace that millions of Americans are locked up for victimless crimes, especially when they are put away for using drugs with far less social harm than a legal drug like alcohol. Were we to reconsider our policies on drugs, we would not only help make Americans as a whole healthier, but we might well raise some money, with some studies suggesting the U.S. could raise as much as $46.7 billion a year from taxes similar to those currently placed on tobacco and alcohol.
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