Legalize drugs and wait for a bad trip


SAN DIEGO -- Don't kid yourself. Although ballot measures passed in Arizona and California are only about medical use of marijuana, they've brought the idea of drug legalization to center stage. More and more people think legalization might just be the answer to the nation's drug and crime problems.

It's a dangerous trend, but pro-legalization idealists can make it sound very rational. Drug use, they say, is a victimless crime, and by making drugs illegal we are turning otherwise decent citizens into criminals. They also blame drug laws for overcrowding our jails and prisons.

Scientific and sociological studies make strong arguments the other way.

First of all, drug use is not victimless. Every year tens of thousands of Americans are victims of crime, child abuse and domestic violence. Drugs and alcohol are the No. 1 cause of these problems:

A study released this year by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that 75 percent of all crimes involve drugs and alcohol. This is not just drug possession and trafficking. It includes property crime, such as burglary and car theft, and violent crime up to and including murder. In fact, most murders are committed by people under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

A study of child-protection and foster care agencies in New York found that 77 percent of abuse cases involved alcohol and drugs.

A study in Indiana found that 54 percent of men assaulting their mates had a drug problem.

Research from Prohibition through today shows us that drug availability increases drug use, abuse and addiction. Legalization would mean more drug abuse, and therefore more victims of crime, child abuse and domestic violence.

The next argument, that drug prohibition is overcrowding our prisons, is also wrong. Drug legalization would increase crime.

People in America's jails and prisons can be divided into three nearly equal groups -- those in for drug crimes, for property crimes and for violent crimes. Legalization proponents only like RTC to talk about drug crimes. Without prohibition, they say, these people would not be clogging our criminal-justice system.

Or would they? Remember, most people selling drugs are users, too. And 75 percent of all crime is related to drug and alcohol use. Even property crimes, such as burglary and car theft, are often drug- and alcohol-related. As addiction grows, so will crime.

The alcohol precedent

Proponents claim legalization would decrease property crime, since addicts wouldn't have to steal to buy drugs. But surveys of state prisons show burglars and auto thieves are just as likely to be drinking as using drugs at the time of their offenses. Why is alcohol just as involved in property crime as illegal drugs?

Because it's not just the cost of drugs that drives addicts to steal. After all, from a solely financial perspective, a heroin addiction costs about as much as a mortgage. So what stops addicts from putting on a coat and tie and finding a job to meet their drug bills?

The answer, of course, is that addiction renders many people incapable of holding a job. A Florida study found that half of all drug addicts were unemployed. Many addicts steal not because drugs are expensive, but because they're so strung out or hung over that they can't hold a job. Legalizing drugs would make it easier for them to be too strung out to work.

But the worst effect of legalization would be on violent crime. Proponents sometimes claim violence would decrease because legalization would end gang warfare, fighting among drug dealers and armed robbery committed by addicts desperate for money to buy drugs. But these are only a small part of the violent crime caused by drug addiction.

Drugs and alcohol cause violent crime because people who are high on alcohol, cocaine, PCP and amphetamines often become violent. It's called pharmacologic effect. It has nothing to do with whether the drug is legal or illegal, cheap or expensive.

A study published in the book "Drugs, Crime and the Criminal Justice System" looked at 130 drug-related murders and found that 20 percent were related to the business end of the drug trade, 3 percent were by addicts who needed money, and a full 60 percent were committed by people high on drugs who got violent.

Another study, from 1952, found alcohol involved in 60 percent of murders. This had nothing to do with the cost or legality of alcohol. It's just that people under the influence get violent.

Legalizing drugs might briefly free up prison space if we release all the prisoners now incarcerated for drug crimes. But those beds wouldn't stay empty long. Many of those same people would be back, having committed violent or property crimes. And the skyrocketing theft and violence caused by increased addiction and drug abuse would dwarf any gains made by legalizing drugs.

Jim Gogek is an editorial writer and columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Ed Gogek is a Phoenix psychiatrist. Send e-mail to

Pub Date: 11/20/96

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