When Bill Buckley came out for drug legalization and declared the “drug war” a failure, the issue of drug legalization ceased to be a left-right issue. Mr. Buckley wrote, “So what has the drug war done? It has made a mockery of an anti-drug law that is simply ignored by millions; it has induced violent felonies in pursuit of drug profits; and it is self-evidently powerless to do anything about the recent increase in marijuana use by reckless adolescents.”
Mr. Buckley makes the conservative case against the drug war by evaluating “The practicality of a legal constriction, as for instance, what those states ought to do whose statute books continue to outlaw sodomy, which interdiction is unenforceable, making the law nothing more than print on paper.” He added, “I came to the conclusion that the drug war was not working, and that it would not work absent a change in the structure of the civil rights to which we cling as a valuable part of our patrimony.” We need to calculate the cost to society by outlawing drugs and weigh it against its legalization.
The active ingredient in marijuana is legal and marketed as Marinol, an effective anti-emetic agent and weight gain enhancer. When many individuals pushed for the use of marijuana for medical use, it was based on the sound science done with Marinol and as well as personal experiences. Most people who have smoked marijuana do report an increase in appetite and many cancer patients have found the illegal substance useful in reducing the nausea and vomiting that accompanies chemotherapy.
Nearly 70 million people over 12 years old have experimented with marijuana or hashish at least once in their lives and 5% are “current users.” That represents nearly 15 million Americans and most users range between 18 and 25. (Usage plummets after the age of 34; when children, mortgages, and jobs blunt the appeal of bonging.) As National Review editor Richard Lowery comments, “it makes little sense to send people to jail for using a drug that, in terms of its harmfulness, should be categorized somewhere between alcohol and tobacco on one hand and caffeine on the other hand.” Nearly 700,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana offenses and close to 80% of these arrests are for possession. Like alcohol prohibition in the 1920’s, marijuana prohibition is becoming unenforceable and reducing respect for the law.
Many members of the Baby Boomer era and their children have used marijuana and here is an irony. During the Prohibition period of the 20’s, when alcohol was illegal, marijuana was legal. Alcohol prohibition was a progressive cause due to the significant abuse seen with alcohol at the turn of the century. The biggest supporters of Prohibition were women, who did not like to see the family income going to alcohol. Alcohol was blamed for poverty, crime, insanity and degeneracy. Prohibit alcohol and you will empty the jails and poorhouses. No sooner than Prohibition was passed, Americans regretted the noble experiment.
The biggest winner in Prohibition was organized crime, as the mob controlled all aspects of the alcohol business. The funds from alcohol allowed the Mafia to grow from their individual city enclaves to a national organization with its tentacles in every corner of American society from loan sharking to robbing union pension funds. Another side effect was the change in drinking habits. Historian Samuel Morrison noted, “Since beer and wine did not pay bootleggers like strong liquor, the country’s drinking habits were changed from one to the other.” College age adults, instead of drinking beer, enjoyed bathtub gin and other hard liquor. Drug prohibition has produced similar results in strengthening criminal elements while seeing a shift to the use of harder drugs.
The one positive aspect of Prohibition was that Americans drank less compared to the period before Prohibition. The risk of legalization is an increased use of drugs if legally available. Like tobacco and alcohol, marijuana and other drug use could increase to a certain level before leveling off. Today, there are more ex-smokers than smokers and overall, the percentage of Americans who smoke has declined over the past decade. When the side effects of alcohol and tobacco became evident, Society as a whole found answers to restrict the use of these agents. Making a product legal does not mean society sanctions it. Many communities have passed “no smoking” laws in various public buildings and increasing policing on drunk driving has encouraged many individuals to reduce their drinking and health risk have induced many to quit smoking. Education of the dangers of the abuse of agents has been significant in the reduction of drinking and smoking cigarettes.
While I believe that legalization will increase drug usage, others disagree. Jini Wallace of Christians for Cannabis told me in an interview, “In countries and states that have made moves toward decriminalization, there has been little to no increase in use.” Ms. Wallace concludes that those individuals who use “other drugs, such as crack, cocaine, etc…will switch back to Cannabis.” She added that the lower price for legal marijuana will allow consumers to use more cannabis and less of the more expensive harder substance. Former Governor Gary Johnson (R-New Mexico) also dissents from the view that legalization means increased drug use. He observed, “For starters, we shouldn’t be looking at use as the benchmark. Look at Holland, where effectively drugs have been decriminalized; Holland has 60 percent of the drug use the United States has. I’m talking about marijuana and hard drugs, kids and adults. So if you look at that, it would not suggest that use would increase”
Drug use should not be taken lightly and we know the abuse of alcohol and nicotine has caused significant social problems. Legalization will not eliminate the social consequences of individual action. Most people do not experience problems when smoking marijuana on a recreational basis and its prohibition remains a cultural event. But some individuals do suffer from problems associated with marijuana. We are already using the basic chemical as a schedule III drug and the evidence on the basic chemical that it does have medicinal uses makes marijuana more appealing. (Maybe even better, since if you smoke marijuana, you will get a larger portion in the bloodstream quicker and bypass absorption in the gut. The latter is important since many cancer and AIDS patients have significant GI problems with the drugs that they take. Having a delivery system that is not oral gives physicians more options.)
The drug war has strengthened organized crime and allowed international crime families as well as terrorist organizations to use the drug trade as a means to raise money. Billions of dollars reach the coffers of many criminal organizations and this money produces seed money to corrupt public officials and undermine law enforcement. This also happened during alcohol prohibition when gangsters received funding to expand their empires. Legalization of drugs would reduce cash to terrorist and criminal organizations and make it easier to police these illegal corporations.
The conservative case for drug legalization, in particular marijuana, is based on one premise. The cost of waging the drug war is becoming higher than actually making it legal. It does not mean that society sanctions widespread drug use anymore than it endorses alcohol abuse. When laws breed disrespect from the normally law abiding, then society begins to crumble around the edges.