"Don't Legalize Drugs," by John P. Walters
(Op-ed column from the Wall Street Journal 07/19/02) (980)

(This byliner by John P. Walters, director of the Office of National
Drug-Control Policy, first appeared in the Wall Street Journal July 19
and is in the public domain. No republication restrictions.)

Don't Legalize Drugs
John P. Walters

The charge that "nothing works" in the fight against illegal drugs has
led some people to grasp at an apparent solution: legalize drugs. They
will have taken false heart from news from Britain last week, where
the government acted to downgrade the possession of cannabis to the
status of a non-arrestable offense.

According to the logic of the legalizers, it's laws against drug use,
not the drugs themselves, that do the greatest harm. The real problem,
according them, is not that the young use drugs, but that drug laws
distort supply and demand. Violent cartels arise, consumers overpay
for a product of unknown quality, and society suffers when the law
restrains those who "harm no one but themselves."

Better, the argument goes, for the government to control the trade in
narcotics. That should drive down the prices (heroin would be "no more
expensive than lettuce," argues one proponent), eliminate violence,
provide tax revenue, reduce prison crowding, and foster supervised
injection facilities.

Sounds good. But is it realistic? The softest spot in this line of
reasoning is the analogy with alcohol abuse. The argument goes roughly
like this: "Alcohol is legal. Alcohol can be abused. Therefore,
cocaine should be legal." Their strongest argument, by contrast, is
that prohibition produces more costs than benefits, while legalized
drugs provide more benefits than costs.

But legalizers overstate the social costs of prohibition, just as they
understate the social costs of legalization. Take the statistic that
more than 1.5 million Americans are arrested every year for drug
crimes. Legalizers would have us believe that otherwise innocent
people are being sent to prison (displacing "true" criminals) for
merely toking up. But only a fraction of these arrestees are ever
sentenced to prison. And there should be little question that most of
those sentenced have earned their place behind bars.

Some 24% of state prison drug offenders are violent recidivists, while
83% have prior criminal histories. Only 17% are in prison for "first
time offenses," while nominal "low-level" offenders are often
criminals who plea-bargain to escape more serious charges. The reality
is that a high percentage of all criminals, regardless of the offense,
use drugs. In New York, 79% of those arrested for any crime tested
positive for drugs.

Drug abuse alone cost an estimated $55 billion in 1998 (excluding
criminal justice costs), and deaths directly related to drug use have
more than doubled since 1980. Would increasing this toll make for a
healthier America? Legalization, by removing penalties and reducing
price, would increase drug demand. Make something easier and cheaper
to obtain, and you increase the number of people who will try it.
Legalizers love to point out that the Dutch decriminalized marijuana
in 1976, with little initial impact. But as drugs gained social
acceptance, use increased consistently and sharply, with a 300% rise
in use by 1996 among 18-20 year-olds.

Britain, too, provides an instructive example. When British physicians
were allowed to prescribe heroin to certain addicts, the number
skyrocketed. From 68 British addicts in the program in 1960, the
problem exploded to an estimated 20,000 heroin users in London alone
by 1982.

The idea that we can "solve" our complex drug problem by simply
legalizing drugs raises more questions than it answers. For instance,
what happens to the citizenship of those legally addicted? Will they
have their full civil rights, such as voting? Can they be employed as
school bus drivers? Nurses? What of a woman, legally addicted to
cocaine, who becomes pregnant? Should she be constrained by the very
government that provides for her habit?

Won't some addicts seek larger doses than those medically prescribed?
Or seek to profit by selling their allotment to others, including
minors? And what about those promised tax revenues -- how do they
materialize? As it is, European drug clinics aren't filled with
productive citizens, but rather with demoralized zombies seeking a
daily fix. Won't drugs become a disability entitlement?

Will legalization eliminate violence? The New England Journal of
Medicine reported in 1999 on the risks for women injured in domestic
violence. The most striking factor was a partner who used cocaine,
which increased risk more than four times. That violence is associated
not with drug laws, but with the drug. A 1999 report from the
Department of Health and Human Services showed that two million
children live with a parent who has a drug problem. Studies indicate
that up to 80% of our child welfare caseload involves caregivers who
abuse substances. Drug users do not harm only themselves.

Legalizers like to argue that government-supervised production and
distribution of addictive drugs will eliminate the dangers attributed
to drug prohibition. But when analyzing this "harm reduction"
argument, consider the abuse of the opiate OxyContin, which has
resulted in numerous deaths, physicians facing criminal charges, and
addicts attacking pharmacies. OxyContin is a legally prescribed
substance, with appropriate medical uses -- that is, it satisfies
those conditions legalizers envision for cocaine and heroin. The point
is clear: The laws are not the problem.

Former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed that drugs place us in a
dilemma: "We are required to choose between a crime problem and a
public heath problem." Legalization is a dangerous mirage. To address
a crime problem, we are asked to accept a public health crisis. Yet if
we were to surrender, we would surely face both problems --

(Mr. Walters is director of the Office of National Drug-Control

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