Legalize The Drugs

As William Buckley, Milton Friedman and other clear-thinking conservatives held 40 years ago, the only way to win the so-called war on drugs in the U.S. was to obviate it by legalizing the drugs. Given the insatiable multi-billion dollar demand for drugs, one can be sure that the stuff will be supplied somehow, at whatever the risks or costs.

Recall the fiasco of Prohibition. Ratified in 1917 and ratified by 46 of the then 48 states (Rhode Island and Connecticut refusing) the 18th. Amendment to the Constitution prohibited the manufacturing, transportation, sale, importation and exportation of intoxicating liquor in the United States. It did not make the consumption of liquor illegal, but by making the liquor itself illegal, the teetotalers and religious conservatives who foisted the Amendment figured that consumption would be significantly reduced or eliminated. They couldn’t have been more mistaken.

Alcoholism, admittedly, was a major health problem back then, probably more so than now. But Prohibition didn’t cure it. If anything, it made it worse. Illegal “moonshine” stills in rural areas and “bathtub gin” distilleries in urban neighborhoods throughout the country produced booze for working-class folk by the barrel. The better-heeled kept up their fine-liquor habit in floating bars disguised as fishing boats and cruise ships in international waters. Then there were frequent excursions to free ports like Havana, Nassau and Kingston, or across the border to Canada and Mexico.

So the booze flowed on illegally, and with it black market money, and following the money, corrupt government officials, crooked cops and organized crime. Gangster Al Capone earned his legendary reputation by trafficking in illegal liquor. Commanding a 7,000 strong organization and by buying off mayors, judges and Congressmen, Capone rose to become one of the most powerful men in America. “When I sell liquor,” he boasted, “it’s bootlegging. When my patrons serve it in silver trays on Lake Shore Drive, it’s hospitality.”

The upshot of it all was that by the time the proponents of Prohibition realized their colossal mistake, the trafficking in illegal liquor had spawned a major industry on both sides of the law. Not only were the bad guys profiting hugely from it, but the good guys as well. Had the ban on liquor suddenly been lifted, hundreds of FBI agents and clean public officials would have lost their jobs.

With the outset of the Great Depression the 18th Amendment was finally repealed by the 21st, the only time in American history that a Constitutional amendment has been repealed. Though reliable statistics are hard to come by, there is no indication that alcohol consumption spiked, that more people died of cirrhosis of the liver, that more were injured in alcohol-induced industrial and traffic accidents, or that more died in drunken brawls, as the teetotalers had warned. Some historians opine that the overall situation actually improved. In 1931 Al Capone was sentenced to 15 years in prison for income tax evasion, and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI turned its attention to hunting down bank robbers and Communist subversives.

Fast forward 80 years to today’s War on Drugs and the situation is remarkably similar, except that it’s now global, Like the “bathtub gin” and “moonshine” stills of the 1920’s, cottage drug businesses have proliferated throughout America and the rest of the world. No small farmer in his right mind is going to raise potatoes and chickens legally when he can make a killing growing pot, or poppy, or producing crank or heroin in a makeshift shed. At the distribution level, drug lords in the image of Al Capone, and cops, public officials, and entire governments on their payroll rake in, by some estimates, as much a $500 Billion a year--about equal to the GDP of South Africa, twice that of Peru and five times the yearly profits of Bank of America before the current financial crisis.

Like any major multinational corporation, the illegal drug industry has grown too big to fail. If drugs were suddenly legalized, the price of drugs would plummet and the sizeable number of folks who have built their careers fighting drugs—the DEA, local police departments, counselors, lawyers, moralizing pundits, to name some—would suddenly be out of a gig, along with the criminal element on the other side of the equation. As with Prohibition, the good guys and the bad guys in today’s absurd war against drugs have symbiotically joined ranks. Would it be too cynical to assume that it’s the bad guys who are funding the effort to keep drugs illegal.

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