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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Drug Legalisation Myths, Part One

Feb 18, 2014

There are many arguments given by leftists, civil libertarians and others for the harm minimisation policies and the liberalisation of drug laws. They are heard over and over again, and these mantras tend to be taken as gospel truth simply by virtue of their mass repetition.

But are these arguments as solid and irrefutable as their proponents claim? I don’t think so. Here I examine in some detail eight of the more common arguments proffered. I find them all wanting.

One. This approach will save lives.
This statement is misleading at best. In the case of dangerous drugs like heroin, a death may be temporarily stalled, as a result of such harm minimisation measures as needle exchanges, but death remains a very high factor. The best way to insure that a person does not die of a drug overdose is to make him drug free. A drug-free person does not face the risk of a drug-related death. Thus our aim should be to get people off mind-altering drugs and into detox and rehab programs, in order to make them once again productive members of society.

drugs 1Two. It is the compassionate approach.
One has to ask the question, What is more compassionate: to keep a person at risk of drug overdose or to help a person escape that risk altogether? To simply keep a person on drugs, albeit “safely” is not compassionate. Our aim should be to make drug addicts drug-free. Any approach that leaves a person chained to their life-threatening addiction is not a compassionate approach.

Three. It works in other countries.
There is actually very little evidence that harm minimisation programs in fact work overseas. For example, the Netherlands is often held up as a model of successful harm minimisation programs. But as advocates of this approach admit, the research is just not there. As the Victorian Drug Policy Expert Committee even admitted concerning the Dutch drug consumption facilities (DCFs – the Dutch term for drug injecting rooms), “there has been no thorough research on the impact of DCFs”.

Moreover, I have lived in the Netherlands for a five-year period. And frankly, I don’t want to see what takes place there happening here. Until they engaged in a recent crackdown, the city of Amsterdam was awash with drugs and crime. Indeed, drug-related crime was three times the rate of the US. You couldn’t walk down a street of central Amsterdam without being accosted by drug pushers and addicts. I lost count of how many times our bicycles were stolen by the druggies to help support their habits. I don’t want that cesspool of crime, drugs and violence to be replicated here.

Four. It will empty our prisons.
Harm minimisation advocates will say that we should think of drug use as a health problem, not a criminal or legal problem. They argue that criminalisation and incarceration is the wrong approach. I have often heard the harm minimisation proponents use America’s prison population as an example. They claim that there are 2 million Americans languishing in prisons, and if we would stop making drug use a criminal issue (that is, if we would decriminalise drugs) we would see an end to such appalling figures.

What they do not tell you however is that while around two-thirds of these prisoners are in fact in for drug-related offences, very few are in there merely for simple drug possession. Indeed, one study found that only 2 per cent of the American prison population were convicted of pure drug possession. Most were in for aggravated drug crimes, that is, crimes committed while on drugs (murder, armed robbery, theft, assault, child abuse, etc.) or crimes committed in order to obtain drugs.

In fact, the US Department of Justice has found that criminals commit six times as many homicides, four times as many assaults and almost one-and-a-half times as many robberies under the influence of drugs as they commit in order to get money to buy drugs.

Moreover, the majority of these crimes took place under the influence of alcohol, and not illegal substances. Thus it is a myth to suggest that drug decriminalisation would empty our prisons, free up our courts, and so on.

Five. It will put an end to the black market and reduce the crime rate.
This claim is often heard. The argument goes like this: By making drugs legal, or less prohibitive, drug prices will decline, and as a result, crime and the black market associated with illicit drugs will decline or disappear. It is also claimed that the legalisation of drugs will remove the profit motive from the drug trade. And it is argued that the money saved in stopping parts of the drug war, or in taxing the newly legalised drugs, can go to rehabilitation. There are a number of problems with these kinds of arguments.

First, the costs to society for drug use are far greater than any moneys saved on reduced law enforcement efforts. Consider the costs of drug legalisation to society: lost productivity, increased medical services for addicts and their families, more highway accidents, poorer educational performance, increased policing, more babies who may pick up their mother’s addiction, etc. A recent study found that the annual cost of drugs to the Australian community is 14.3 billion dollars. Another study found that almost a third of drivers killed on Victoria’s roads have tested positive to illicit drugs. Increase the number of drug users, as legalisation will do, and you increase this figure as well.

Second, any “sin taxes” raised by these legalised drugs will still not offset the costs to society mentioned above. Indeed, the taxation of legalised drugs will still drive people to crime. In order for governments to raise enough revenue from drug taxes to pay for all the costs of increased drug use, the taxes will have to be high. But the higher the tax, the more the demand for black market drugs, or the more crime resorted to pay for these higher priced drugs.

Third, the profit motive abounds in already legal operations. The alcohol and tobacco industries are currently driven by hopes of large profits. If drugs were legalised, whole new industries would develop to cash in on the trade. Greed for gain does not disappear when an activity is legalised.

Fourth, black markets exist today for all kinds of legal products. Just because something is legal does not mean the black market will disappear. People will still want to beat taxes, escape government notice, or sell to minors, thus the demand for black markets will continue, even on legalised products.

Part Two of this article is found here: billmuehlenberg.com/2014/02/18/drug-legalisation-myths-part-two/

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7 Responses to Drug Legalisation Myths, Part One

  • We remember the prohibition years of the US and the irreparable damage that it caused especially in creating a stronghold for criminals and the mobs.
    More importantly, the one issue that has not been discussed is the issue of democracy where in any democracy it is all but immoral for lawmakers to make laws for the individual freedom even to self harm. In my view, in any democracy, laws can only be enacted to protect the possible victim and not the perpetrator.
    As such, any law that is enacted to protect the person from self is undemocratic and somewhat immoral. I recall a passage in a movie titled A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM where a young love sick teenager threatened to kill himself if he could not have his sweetheart and the Centurion replied: “IT IS AGAINST ROMAN LAW TO KILL YOURSELF – THE PENALTY IS DEATH”. Absurd? Right!
    So how do we penalise those who take illicit drugs? We impose heavy fines on them which then compels them to sell more drugs so as to pay for the fines – Absurd? Right!
    My duty is to ensure that my neighbour comes to no harm and not to impose my will on him/her for that is the fundamental law of democracy!

  • Thanks John, but sorry, I am not at all with you. I have provided a wealth of data and evidence here, including on the issue of prohibition – yet you have provided none.

    And there is no democracy in the world of course that does not deal in trade-offs all the time. There is always some diminution of personal freedoms to offset harms to the social good. No society has or can operate on complete personal freedom and autonomy with no regard whatsoever for the common good and the welfare of society as a whole. That is not democracy but amoral anarchy. So there are always trade-offs going on here in any free society, with getting the balance right often a difficult thing to achieve. We may lean too heavily on one side or the other, but throwing the baby out with the bathwater here helps no one, and is a counsel of despair.

    And you are quite wrong to imply that drug use is somehow just a victimless crime, and we should therefore simply have open slather on this. We know perfectly well – as I carefully document here and elsewhere – that illicit drug use harms not only the user, but plenty of other innocent people, and the rest of society as well.

    I am not a gung-ho libertarian as you appear to be, and never can or will be. The wellbeing of everyone, not just the selfish desires of some individuals, must always be taken into account in any sane and sensible social policy. Unlike you, I think the real immorality here is to not give a rip about anyone else, all in the name of a faulty appeal to personal freedom and autonomy.

  • John is also wrong about prohibition in the U.S. Despite the laws being poorly enforced, most crime went down, to the point that prisons were being closed for lack of inmates.

  • I don’t get this “prohibition failied in the US” bunk… it only failed coz it wasnt enforced… Of course prohibition works… Look at what has happened to the the smoking demographic the last thirty years… sheesh… Prohibiting a substance that the politicians, the clergy, the public servants, and the local man on the street (and which has historically been used as for sacramental worship in the church) enjoys is not gonna happen… further, unlike marijuana and other street drugs that are designed in order to become inebriated… alcohol when drunken in moderation need never lead even to tipsyness…

  • Just think about the analogy of the fence at the top of the cliff verses the ambulances at the bottom of the cliff. Obviously people can still jump over the cliff if they are really determined and I guess Christian compassion still compels us to provide ambulances for those who will choose that option l. Most people want to stay within what is legal be it with a few twists and turns of interpretation to make the law stretch a little further to justify what they want to do, but generally to stay within what is legal is more comfortable and less trouble. So of course some people will use and sell alcohol or whatever it is that is illegal at the time but that number will be far less than the number of legal users would be if the substance is legal. Again, as I mentioned in another comment, a distinction is important with alcohol between wine and strong drink. How does it work with Opium and its related substances. Obviously it is successfully used in pain relief. Similarly, alcohol could be made illegal with exception of medical use and then it would be under the supervision of GPs.
    What is the legal status of drugs in Mexico? Because there are not just hundreds but thousands of drug related deaths and murders every year.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  • Joel, you’re right that prohibition in the U.S. wasn’t enforced very well. The politicians put it under the tax laws, which means that it was not up to the police to enforce, but the IRS. (Remember that Al Capone’s main protagonist was Elliott Ness, an agent with an IRS department charged with enforcing prohibition.)

    Despite this, prohibition was actually a success, with sales of kids shoes, accommodation bookings at hotels, and many other things going up, as people spent money on those things instead of alcohol. And crime going down, as I mentioned above.

    But yes, prohibiting a substance that politicians like to use is not going to be easy. Prohibition in the U.S. came in after many, many, years of campaigning by church and temperance groups, and even then the politicians tended to flout it. At the elections after it was introduced, the pro-prohibition side had a swing towards it, as the people wanted it to stay.

    And it was finally repealed after a mainstream media campaign against it, because the media moguls saw legalising it and taxing it as a way of relieving their own tax burdens. The media campaign was primarily a misinformation campaign, highlighting problems and downplaying benefits and successes, as the media is prone to doing, and still do regarding evolution, homosexuality, etc. It was so successful that to this day most people wrongly think that it was a disaster.

  • I would love to get citations for studies/works that show the success of Prohibition. Could anyone help me out? Thanks so much.

    God bless!

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