Feb 072011
Authors: Jim Sojourner

Legalize meth.

Legalize heroin, cocaine, LSD, ecstasy, mushrooms and marijuana.

And don’t stop there; legalize it all.

The Mexican drug wars haven’t been all the headline rage lately, but news stories have still been popping up like opium poppies, and with the recent hullabaloo about silly new medical marijuana regulation possibilities in Colorado, I’ve had drug policy on the brain.

Rather, I’ve had failed drug policy on the brain.

For decades the U.S. has been fighting for a drug-free society, mostly by taking a zero-tolerance stance toward drugs. To state the obvious: It hasn’t worked.

But it’s not for lack of trying. According to an article in the Economist from 2009, the United States spends about $40 billion annually trying to eradicate the supply of drugs (chew on that factoid, deficit hawks). It locks up about 500,000 of the roughly 1.5 million people arrested for drug offenses each year.
Prohibitive policies also have bloody implications for the drug-producing countries. As we’ve seen south of our border, when drug gangs have sole control of the supply of illegal drugs and profit from their sales, organized crime terrorizes entire nations and brings governments to their knees. According to a Salt Lake Tribune article published yesterday, Undersecretary of the Army Joseph Westphal said U.S. troops might even need to be called in to quell the violence in Mexico –– a costly proposition both in terms of American lives and money, all because of illegal substances.

But despite the effort America and other countries put into fighting illegal drugs, usage levels haven’t changed in the last decade. According to the same Economist article, the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime says drug use has stabilized, meaning about 5 percent of the world’s adult population use drugs, roughly the same rate as a decade ago.

That includes American, who are still using lots of drugs despite a harsh drug policy that costs taxpayers billions, threatens to make otherwise law-abiding citizens criminals and forces users to use in the shadows where diseases spread and the risk of dying from an overdose or adulterated drugs is much higher than it
would be in a saner society.

Don’t get me wrong: drugs are bad, mmk? But as the Economist puts it, while full legalization may not be a good policy, it’s the least bad policy.

The best example is Portugal. According to another Economist article from 2010, in 2001 Portugal decriminalized all drugs. Instead of becoming a drug-infested armpit of Europe, the libertarian Cato Institute found quite the opposite has happened.

Rates of drug trafficking in Portugal have declined, the article says, as have rates of other drug related problems like disease transmission and drug overdose deaths; drug addicts now account for only 20 percent of the country’s HIV cases instead of 56 percent.

During the last decade, the number of people who admit to using heroin rose only from 1 percent to 1.1 percent, and the usage rates of most other drugs have actually fallen. Abuse rates for heroin and other drugs have declined among Portugal’s youth since drugs were decriminalized. Addiction rates have not increased, but treatment rates have gone through the roof.

To be clear, Portugal has not legalized drugs; it has just decriminalized them. Anyone found in possession will have their drugs confiscated and could end up with an administrative fine akin to that of not wearing a seatbelt. But full legalization would give America even better control over the source of drugs and give it more options to deal with drug abuse.

Parents might worry full legalization would make it easier for kids to try drugs. They’re probably right.
But despite what drug warriors would have you believe, the vast majority of drug users use even hard drugs only occasionally. Not to mention, no correlation exists between the harshness of drug laws and drug-use rates. Plus, the money saved and made by legalization could be used to discourage drug use with honest education and to treat those who do abuse drugs instead of just locking them up.

It’s time to start viewing drug use as a public health problem, not as a criminal problem. By legalizing and taxing drugs, the U.S. would free up billions to spend on educating people and treating drug use rather than spending that money locking people up and failing to stop drug use. It’s the only policy that can both mitigate the abuse problems in consumer countries like the U.S. and break the iron fist of organized crime in producer countries like Mexico.

As Peter Tosh once said: Legalize it!

But legalize it all.

Managing Editor Jim Sojourner is a senior journalism major. His column appears Tuesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

 Posted by at 3:44 pm

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