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it wants the authority to shoot the plane down and then find

out if it's carrying drugs.

These rather frightening ideas represent one response to

the futility of the drug war.

The more sensible response, it seems to me, is to decrim

inalize--to de-escalate, to realize that trying to wage war on 23 million Americans who are obviously very committed to

certain recreational activities is not going to be any more

successful than Prohibition was.

A lot of people use drugs

recreationally and peacefully and safely and are not going to

go along with Zero Tolerance.

They're going to keep trying to

get drugs. The problems caused by prohibition are not going to be solved by stepped-up enforcement.

So how exactly would we legalize drugs? Defenders of drug prohibition apparently consider that a devastating question, but it doesn't strike me as being particularly difficult. Our society has had a lot of experience with legal

dangerous drugs, particularly alcohol and tobacco, and we can

draw.on that experience when we legalize marijuana, cocaine,

and heroin--as we will, fairly soon, when more Americans come

to understand the costs of prohibiting them.

Some critics of prohibition would legalize only "soft" drugs--just marijuana in many cases. That policy would not

eliminate the tremendous problems that prohibition has created.

As long as drugs that people very much want remain illegal, a

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black market will exist.

If our goal is to rid our cities of

crime and corruption, it would make more sense to legalize cocaine and heroin while leaving marijuana illegal than vice versa. The lesson of alcohol prohibition in the 1920s and the prohibition of other drugs today is that prohibition creates more problems than it solves. We should legalize all recrea

tional drugs.

Then what? When we legalize drugs, we will likely apply the alcohol model. That is, marijuana, cocaine, and heroin would be sold only in specially licensed stores--perhaps in

liquor stores, perhaps in a new kind of drugstore.


labels would be posted in the stores and on the packages.


would be illegal to sell drugs to minors, now defined as anyone

under 21.

It would be illegal to advertise drugs on television

and possibly even in print. Committing a crime or driving under the influence of drugs would be illegal, as with alcohol.

It is quite possible that such a system would be less effective in attracting young people to drug use than the current system of schoolyard pushers offering free samples.

Teenagers today can get liquor if they try, and we shouldn't

assume that a minimum purchasing age would keep other drugs out of their hands. But we don't see many liquor pushers peddling their wares on playgrounds. Getting the drug business out of

our schoolyards and streets is an important benefit of legali


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It is likely that drug use would initially increase.

Prices would be much lower, and drugs would be more readily

available to adults who prefer not to break the law.

But those

drugs would be safer--when's the last time you heard of a

liquor store selling gin cut with formaldehyde?--and people would be able to regulate their intake more carefully.

In the long run, however, I foresee declining drug use and

weaker drugs. Consider the divergent trends in legal and illegal drugs today. Illegal drugs keep getting stronger-

crack, PCP, ecstasy, designer drugs--as a result of the Iron

Law of Prohibition. But legal drugs are getting weaker--lowtar cigarettes, light beer, wine coolers.

About 41 million Americans have quit smoking, and sales of spirits are declining; beer and wine keep the alcohol industry stable. As Americans become more health-conscious, they are turning away from drugs. Drug education could do more to encourage this trend if it was separated from law enforcement.

By reducing crime, drug legalization would greatly increase our sense of safety in our neighborhoods. It would

take the astronomical profits out of the drug trade, and the Colombian cartel would collapse like a punctured balloon.

Drugs would be sold by Fortune 500 companies and friendly

corner merchants, not by Mafiosi and 16-year-olds with BMWs and guns. Legalization would put an end to the corruption that has engulfed so many Latin American countries and tainted the Miami

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police and U.S. soldiers in Central America.

Legalization would not solve all of America's drug

problems, but it would make our cities safer, make drug .use

healthier, eliminate a major source of revenue for organized

crime, reduce corruption here and abroad, and make honest work more attractive to inner-city youth--pretty good results for

any reform.


Select Committee On Narcotics Abuse And Control

Hearing on the Legalization of Illicit Drugs

September 29, 1988

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