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today's alarning crime rates, drug prohibition does.
What are the effects of prohibition? (Specifically I'm considering drug prohibition here, but the analysis applies to almost any prohibition of a substance or activity people want.)
The first effect is crime.
This is a very simple matter of
Drug laws reduce the number of suppliers and there
fore reduce the supply of the substance, driving up the price.
The danger of arrest for the seller adds a risk premium to the price. The higher price means that users often have to commit
crimes to pay for a habit that would be easily affordable if it
was legal. Heroin, cocaine, and other drugs would cost much less if they were legal. Experts estimate that at least half
of the violent crime in major u.s. cities is a result of drug
Crime also results from another factor, the fact that
dealers have no way to settle disputes with each other except
by shooting each other.
We don't see shoot-outs in the
automobile business or even in the liquor or the tobacco busi
But if a drug dealer has a dispute with another dealer,
he can't sue, he can't go to court, he can't do anything
except use violence.
And then the very illegality of the drug business draws in
As conservatives always say about guns, if drugs
are outlawed, only outlaws will sell drugs.
The decent people
who would like to be selling drugs the way they might otherwise Page 3
sell liquor will get squeezed out of an increasingly violent
The second effect of prohibition is corruption. Prohibition raises prices, which leads to extraordinary profits, which are an irresistible temptation to policemen, customs officers,
Latin American officials, and so on.
We should be shocked not
that there are Miami policemen on the take, but that there are
some Miami policemen not on the take.
Policemen make $35,000 a
year and have to arrest people who are driving cars worth
several times that.
Should we be surprised that some of this
money trickles down into the pockets of these policemen?
A third effect, and one that is often underestimated, is
bringing buyers into contact with criminals.
If you buy
alcohol you don't have to deal with criminals.
If a student
buys marijuana on a college campus, he may not have to deal
with criminals, but the person he buys it from probably does deal with criminals. And if a high school student buys drugs, there is a very good chance that the people he's buying drugs
from--the people who are bringing drugs right to his doorstep, to his housing project, to his schoolyard--are really cri
minals; not just in the sense that they are selling drugs, but people who have gone into the drug business precisely because it's illegal. One of the strongest arguments for legalization is to divorce the process of using drugs from the process of
getting involved in a criminal culture.
A fourth effect is the creation of stronger drugs.
Richard Cowan in National Review has promulgated what he calls the iron law of prohibition: The more intense the law enforcement, the more potent the drugs wi:1 become. If a dealer can
only smuggle one suitcase full of drugs into the United States
or if he can only drive one car full of drugs into Baltimore,
which would he rather be carrying--marijuana, coca leaves,
cocaine, or crack?
He gets more dollars for the bulk if he
carries more potent drugs.
An early example of that is that a
lot of people turned to marijuana when alcohol became more
difficult to get during Prohibition.
A few years after
Prohibition began in the 1920s there began to be pressures for
laws against marijuana.
When one advocates drug legalization,
one of the standard questions is, "Well, marijuana is one thing, maybe even cocaine, but are you seriously saying you
would legalize crack?"
And the answer is that crack is almost
entirely a product of prohibition.
It probably would not have
existed if drugs had been legal for the past 20 years.
The fifth effect of prohibition is civil liberties abuses.
We have heard a lot recently about Zero Tolerance and the
seizure of cars and boats because a small amount of marijuana
or cocaine is allegedly found.
I recall a time in this country
when the government was only allowed to punish someone after
he got convicted in a court of law.
It now appears that the
drug authorities can punish an American citizen by seizing his
car or his boat, not even after an indictment--much less a conviction--but after a mere allegation by a police officer. Whatever happened to the presumption of innocence?
There is an inherent problem of civil liberties abuses in
victimless crimes. Randy Barnett wrote about this in the Pacific Research Institute book Dealing with Drugs; the problem is that with victimless crimes, such as buying drugs, there is
no complaining witness.
In most crimes, say robbery or rape,
there is a person who in our legal system is called the
the person who was robbed or raped, who
goes to the police and complains that somebody has done
something to him or her.
In a drug purchase, neither party to
the transaction complains.
Now what does this mean?
there are no eyewitnesses complaining about the problem so the
police have to get the evidence some other way. The policemen have to start going undercover, and that leads to entrapment, wiretapping, and all sorts of things that border on civil liberties abuses--and usually end up crossing the border.
The sixth effect of prohibition is futility. The drug war
simply isn't working.
Some say that much of today's support
for legalization that we're seeing from politicians and others
is merely a sign of frustration. Well, frustration is a rational response to futility. It's quite understandable why people have gotten frustrated with the continuing failure of new enforcement policies.
If a government is involved in a war and it isn't winning,
it has two basic choices.
The first is escalation, and we've
seen a lot of proposals for that.
New York Mayor Ed Koch has proposed to strip-search every
person entering the United States from South America or
Southeast Asia. Members of the D.c. city Council have called for the National Guard to occupy the capital city of the United States. Congress has bravely called for the death penalty for
Jesse Jackson wants to bring the troops home from Europe
and use them to ring our southern border.
The police chief of
Los Angeles wants to invade Colombia.
The White House drug adviser and the usually sensible Wall Street Journal editorial page have called for arresting small
The Journal, with its usual spirit, urged the
government to "crush the users"; that's 23 million Americans.
The Justice Department wants to double our prison capacity
even though we already have far more people in prison as a percentage of our population than any other industrialized country except South Africa. Former attorney general Edwin
Meese III and others want to drug test all workers.
The Customs Service has asked for authorization to "use
appropriate force" to compel planes suspected of carrying drugs
It has clarified, in case there was any doubt, that
yes, it means that if it can't find out what a plane is up to,