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The Case for Legalization

There is really no way to argue that the country’s current drug policy is successful.

The war on drugs costs the U.S. taxpayers $40 billion a year, yet the United States is the still the largest illegal drug consumer in the world by far. As a percentage of our population, we lead the world in cocaine use, eclipsing the next biggest, New Zealand, by a factor of four. Drug offenses are the primary cause for federal incarceration: 50 percent of men and women in federal prison are being held for drug-related crimes.

Evidently, our approach to regulating drugs is not working in its current form, and we need to devise a new strategy.

Legalizing drugs would be a great first step. Punishing victimless crimes is a violation of basic freedoms of choice. According to many people, under certain sets of situations this trade-off – law and order in exchange for personal liberty – makes sense. With regards to drugs, however, I believe that by legislating substance use and distribution, we are merely conceding control to the black market. Instead of being channeled through industries that can be monitored by the people, drug distribution falls upon those disenchanted with traditional methods of social mobility.

As the penalty for selling and distributing drugs increases, so does the market incentive – the salary of the increasingly scarce and increasingly valuable drug dealers. The growth of this incentive is usually correlated to school dropout rates in areas with a lot of drug trafficking – unfortunately, racial minorities bear the brunt of this effect.

Sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh documents the social effects of the prevalence of the illegal drug trade in Chicago in his book “Gang Leader for a Day.” Venkatesh points to the geographical fractionalization and consequential gang wars that stem from fighting over distribution channels.

By keeping drugs in the black market, we are essentially damning entire subsections of society to live in an extremely violent and drug-laden environment. Fifty percent of street crimes in Chicago are caused by gangs fighting over drug distribution.

Even on an international level, consider who is supplying the black market with these drugs. Heroin mainly flows out of rural Afghanistan where its revenues are shared between farmers and the Taliban. Marijuana and cocaine from Central and South America are responsible for the deep corruption and crime problems that afflict countries like Mexico. As American drug policy currently stands, it is a lose-lose situation. Everyone is in a bad place.

Let’s legalize all drugs. People who disagree with this theory often think that I am supporting the destruction of society. I would argue that if we were to legalize drugs, we would have less problems stemming from drug use. First and foremost, it has become clear that drug use is an undeniable social reality, and that it is impossible to banish completely unless we employ draconian, freedom-suppressing laws like those in Singapore.

Given this reality, let us honestly weigh what could happen if we were to legalize drug distribution and use. Most clearly, the formerly illegal drug supply chains would evaporate: legal drug manufacturers would have more affordable products, given that they do not have to worry about smuggling costs.

Decriminalizing drugs would reduce the costs of incarcerating criminals significantly and eliminate a main criminal vocation in some of the most sensitive parts of our country. Children who might otherwise have become drug dealers would have fewer options outside of going to school and getting regular, legal jobs. The main cause for strife in high-risk neighborhoods would eventually dissipate, drastically reducing the incidence of gang-related murder and violent crime. The risk of drugs containing tertiary substances would also fall due to the fact that competitive market forces would set standards for quality and transparency.

As for drug users, I believe that the market would react by having stricter drug tests for jobs and schools. Although drug use would not be punished by the government, the social tradeoffs would most likely become much clearer than they are now.

Life will not be that different: Like alcohol, I imagine that drug use on the job will not be tolerated. Similarly, social security programs such as the evaluation of the ability of parents to rear children will continue to take drug use into consideration. It’s possible that drug dependency will force more people into an underclass of drug addicts who are totally disconnected from society, but this will be a social tradeoff that will hopefully further highlight an incentive to not actually abuse drugs.

Legalizing drugs, however, should be done through Congress as opposed to executive decriminalization. Obama’s current policy of skirting the legislative process to decriminalize marijuana sets a dangerous precedent for the abuse of executive powers.

It is clear that the criminalization of drugs cannot stomp out the market forces sustaining them. Given that the market for drugs will persist, we might as well eliminate the multitude of consequences I mentioned above by legalizing it.

Not all seemingly moral problems have moral solutions. We must think beyond our impulse to punish the bad and find responses that will work in practice. The prevalence of drugs is a social symptom, not an issue in and of itself. If we want to meaningfully deal with the so-called drug problem, we must look at why people are choosing the bag over the book. In the meantime, let’s rid ourselves of the weight the drug war has put on our country.

Contact Anthony Ghosn at