It is time to free ourselves once more from an impractical and misguided "war on drugs" of punitive federal and state laws. It should be replaced by legalization and careful public regulation of mind-altering drugs
WASHINGTON — Are we ready to repeat repeal?
Dec. 5 marked the 75th anniversary of America’s decision, in 1933, to re-amend the Constitution and set ourselves free from alcohol prohibition, a 13-year failed experiment.
So is it time to free ourselves once more from an impractical and misguided prohibition effort — the ill-starred “war on drugs” of punitive federal and state laws passed since the 1970s? Yes, argued two groups — Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation — at a press event here last week. They are urging, instead, legalization and careful public regulation of mind-altering drugs.
The parallels — our situation today and in 1933 — are intriguing.
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Americans disobeyed alcohol prohibition by the millions. Booze even got tied to a rebellious, adventurous lifestyle appealing to young people. Before Prohibition, New York City had 15,000 saloons; five years into prohibition, it had about 32,000 speakeasies.
Today, surveys show 35 million Americans use marijuana yearly, and 114 million have in their lifetimes. Addicts to prohibited drugs, notes Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, “are famous radio personalities, spouses of major candidates, corporate America, Hollywood and your neighbors.”
Under Prohibition, hard liquor — more potent and compact, more profitable to ship illegally — largely displaced beer and wine. With government quality controls gone, thousands of Americans were blinded or killed by “bathtub gin” and its equivalents. Today it is similar: Drug buyers purchase without knowledge of substances’ purity or safety, leading to many accidental deaths.
Then crime. Gangster syndicates were born in the 1920s as Al Capone and his ilk struggled (and killed) for control of the alcohol trade. As with drugs now, disputes about quality, delivery or price weren’t resolved in courts but at the point of a gun.
Today’s prohibition-triggered terrorism is even worse. Violence and official corruption have deeply wounded Mexico, Colombia and other nations with drug rings that feed the U.S. market. This year alone, 4,000 police, prosecutors, journalists, drug cartel members and innocent bystanders have been slaughtered in Mexico, imperiling the nation’s very stability.
Prohibition always imperils civil society. In the ’20s, our courts were clogged with alcohol cases and alarming corruption of public officials. Today it’s the same for drugs, exacerbated by escalating criminal penalties our lawmakers approve.
Our drug-related arrests are rising yearly — 1.8 million last year. The nation has been building more than 900 prison beds every two weeks for about 20 years, the huge costs trumping higher education and other crucial investments. Our 2.3 million prisoner count is the highest of any nation on Earth.
Yet many drug cases are for mere possession. Marijuana, for example, is less dangerous than alcohol. And for truly addictive drugs such as heroin, why not work out a safe supply linked to treatment?
Today, advocates of drug prohibition repeal have a new argument — economic. We are clearly in the worst economic and fiscal crisis since the Great Depression. The downturn will inevitably shrink budgets, trigger layoffs for schools, police, transit, child protection and more.
In the early 1930s, it was the same — economic crisis with unemployment spreading. Repeal of alcohol prohibition created tens of thousands of new legal, taxpaying jobs. Repeal of drug prohibition could do the same now.
In fact, legalizing drugs would save roughly $44.1 billion yearly in government prohibition enforcement for arrests, prosecutions, court and incarceration costs, according to a fresh study by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron. About $30 billion of the savings would be made by state and local governments.
Plus, Miron estimates, legalizing drugs would yield taxes of $32.7 billion, assuming taxation of drugs at rates comparable to those now levied on alcohol and tobacco.
“We can repeal prohibition to restore the economy and pay for vital public services. We can do it again,” argues Sterling.
Finally, no one expects the new Obama administration to risk its early momentum on the drug issue — it’s clearly too “hot.” Yet Obama has expressed concern about our world-leading incarceration rates, about burdening youthful drug offenders with lifelong felony records, about “the devastating impact of the drug trade in the inner cities.”
And there’s the disturbing statistic: 13 percent of African Americans are drug users, but blacks are nearly 60 percent of drug offenders in federal prisons.
Could the new administration tap the big Obama Internet networks for thoughts on drug reform? Who better to start forming a grass-roots constituency for “the change we need”?
Neal Peirce’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org