Drug decriminalization: It's time to give it a shot


IN A political world where more and more politicians let their pollsters tell them what to think, it's refreshing to discover Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico, a man who says what he thinks.

Mr. Johnson has become one of the first high-ranking elected officials to question the war on drugs. "I believe that our war on drugs has been a dismal failure," he told the Taos Chamber of Commerce.

"We are putting more and more money into a war that we are absolutely losing."

Hard to argue with that. The war isn't working, and we should try something different -- namely, getting the federal government out of the business of prohibition and letting the states -- and adult common sense -- decide.

Futile efforts to enforce prohibition have been pursued even more vigorously in the 1980s and 1990s than they were during alcohol prohibition in the 1920s.

Drug enforcement cost about $22 billion in the Reagan years and an additional $45 billion in the four years of the Bush administration. The federal government spent $16 billion on drug-control programs last year alone and plans to spend $18 billion this year. States and local communities spend even more.

Growing prison population

What good has it all done? Well, total drug arrests are now more than 1.5 million a year. There are about 400,000 drug offenders in jails and prisons and more than 80 percent of the increase in the federal prison population from 1985 to 1995 was due to drug convictions. Drug offenders are about 60 percent of all federal prisoners, compared with only 12.4 percent for violent offenses.

But all the arrests and incarcerations haven't stopped the use and abuse of drugs, or the drug trade or the crime associated with black-market transactions. Cocaine and heroin supplies are up; the more our customs agents interdict, the more smugglers import.

As for discouraging young people from using drugs, the massive federal effort has largely been a dud. Despite the soaring expenditures on anti-drug efforts, in 1995 about half the students in the United States tried an illegal drug before they graduated from high school.

Every year from 1975 to 1995, at least 82 percent of high school seniors said they found marijuana "fairly easy" or "very easy" to obtain.

That is why more and more thoughtful people have been questioning the war on drugs and calling for decriminalization, from Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke to George Shultz, who was Ronald Reagan's secretary of state, to Jesse Ventura, the Reform Party governor of Minnesota.

Let's face it: If spending more than $30 billion a year and arresting 1.5 million people a year isn't stopping drug use and abuse, then we should try a different strategy.

What we should be debating right now is federal policy, and we should start by remembering that the United States is a federal republic, in which the 50 states make most of the decisions.

Congress should deal with drug prohibition the way it dealt with alcohol prohibition. The 21st Amendment did not actually legalize the sale of alcohol; it simply repealed the federal prohibition and returned to the states the authority to set alcohol policy.

States took the opportunity to design diverse liquor policies in tune with the preferences of their citizens. Congress should withdraw from the war on drugs and let the states set their own policies, just as they already do for alcohol.

For their part, the states should prohibit drug sales to children, just as alcohol sales to children are prohibited today. Driving under the influence of drugs should be illegal.

But beyond such obvious restrictions, states should be free to set the drug policies that make sense to them, up to and including sales to adults by licensed stores, much as alcohol is sold today.

Down with prohibition

Federal withdrawal from the drug war would restore authority to the states, as the Founders envisioned. It would save taxpayers' money. And over time it would allow us to develop an approach to drug use that abandons prohibition and massive incarceration in favor of a common-sense system in which the propensity of some people to use drugs is accepted and dealt with sensibly.

Whether or not we eventually adopt such a policy, we should certainly have an honest debate on the subject. Voters in every state should be glad that New Mexico has a citizen-governor unafraid to take on tough issues and challenge the status quo.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank.

Pub Date: 10/01/99

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