Legalizing Drugs

It is time to make some fact based decisions about drugs. The War On Drugs is every bit the failure Prohibition was. Want some heroin? If you live in a rural or urban setting, it is available. That brings us to the five reasons we need to rethink our strategy on illegal drugs,

  • Hypocrisy runs rampant in the selection of which drugs are illegal.
  • Everything we thought we knew about addiction has been turned upside down.
  • The War On Drugs created an economic system where African-Americans especially are incentivized into becoming criminals.
  • Sentencing disparities contribute to the breakdown of black families and to distrust of our criminal justice system.
  • And last but certainly not least, the US’s insatiable appetite for illicit drugs and our War On Drugs has killed thousands, devastated economies and destabilized the justice system in Mexico and other Central American countries.

It is time to admit a costly mistake and move on.

Dangerous drugs, there is some confusion here…

Cocaine usage was blamed for about 6,500 deaths in 2015 according to National Institute for Health data. Cocaine is illegal in all 50 states.

The Center for Disease Control estimates that excessive alcohol use is responsible for 88,000 deaths in the US each year, shortening the lives of those who died by an average of 30 years. Further, excessive drinking was responsible for 1 in 10 deaths of adults aged 20-64 years. Alcohol is legal in all 50 states.

According to the US Drug Enforcement Administration drug sheet, no deaths from marijuana overdose have ever been recorded. This could be because the lethal dose for marijuana is 1,000 times higher than the effective dose, or the dose required to have a noticeable effect.  In contrast, alcohol can become lethal at only 10 times the effective dose. Marijuana is legal in only a handful of states.

According to the Center for Disease Control, cigarette smoking causes about one in five deaths in the US annually. Tobacco causes more than 480,000 deaths annually in the US (including deaths from secondhand smoke). Tobacco is legal in all 50 states.

The National Institute for Health estimates the number of deaths from heroin overdoses at over 12,000 annually. This is a 6.2 fold increase from 2002 to 2015. Heroin is illegal in all states.

The National Institute for Health also estimates that almost 18,000  US citizens died in 2015 from Prescription Opioid Painkillers. These painkillers (with a prescription) are legal in all 50 states.

Methamphetamine, also known as Meth,  is responsible for 19,500 deaths per year in the US. Meth is illegal in all 50 states.

Most addictive?

Duffy’s NAPA Valley Rehab is a drug rehabilitation center in north central California. They have put together a ranking of the ten most addictive drugs along with a dependency ranking.

Drug                                       Dependency Ranking

  1. Heroin                                   2.89
  2. Crack cocaine                   2.82
  3. Nicotine                               2.82
  4. Methadone                         2.68
  5. Methamphetamine        2.24
  6. Alcohol                                  2.13
  7. Cocaine                                 2.13
  8. Amphetamines                 1.82
  9. Benzodiazepines              1.89
  10. GHB (Designer drugs)   1.71

If you are looking for marijuana, you won’t find it on the above list. Also, nicotine and crack cocaine are tied with the second highest Dependence Rankings. Alcohol and cocaine are also tied in sixth place.

Many people perceive heroin having an almost unbreakable dependency. This is not correct. During the late part of the US’s ill-fated involvement in Vietnam,  soldiers deployed in Vietnam accessed extremely high-grade heroin at a very low price. Consequently, we brought thousands of heroin addicts back to the US. in the late 1970’s.  There were all sorts of dire predictions of rampant heroin addiction in the US. Fortunately, it just didn’t happen.

An economics professor I had used the concept of “mutual exclusivity” to explain what transpired. In this case, it is almost impossible to be a heroin addict while holding a job and caring for a family. Mutual exclusivity means something has to go, either the heroin or having a job and family. For the majority of these returning soldiers, it was the heroin that went.

Addictive personalities and non-randomness

Many people believe we need to keep illicit drugs illegal because if a person tries a drug like heroin, they will immediately become addicted. This simply isn’t true!

There is a predisposition to being addicted and this includes people with addictive personalities. According to studies, about 10-15% of the population falls into this category. The difference between those with addictive personalities and the rest of the population is the difference between abusing and using.

While most of the population can enjoy a drink now and again, someone with an addictive personality will want to enjoy 10 or more drinks. Many people  enjoy going to church once a week. Someone with an addictive personality will want to go every day. And, while most people can enjoy cocaine on an occasional basis, someone with an addictive personality will need it every day.

Getting back to the War On Drugs, someone with an addictive personality will go to any lengths and pay almost any price to feed their addiction. Trying to make drugs more difficult to obtain by imposing longer prison sentences on sellers and stepping up border enforcement are a waste of time. Much more cost-effective to treat the individual addictions.

It is also important to recognize that having an addictive personality is not random in the population. People in the lowest income brackets (who can least afford it), are almost three times more likely to be cocaine or marijuana addicts than those in the highest brackets. Although not as dramatic, they are also much more likely to be addicted to nicotine and alcohol.

This also begs the question, are these people poor because of their addictions or are they addicted because of their economic state? For the majority, drugs are a way to escape their reality. According to  Stanton Peele, Seven Tools to Beat Addiction (2004), “Addiction is an intense involvement people fall into for solace when they cannot find better gratifications in the rest of their lives.”

Besides socio-economic status, some other predictors of addictive personality are youth, lower intelligence, mental health issues, pathological gambling and  compulsive sexual behavior. Again, the point to re-emphasize is that a person that tries cocaine has roughly the same chance of addiction as if they tried alcohol. The determinant of their reaction is if they have an addictive personality.

Perverse economic stimulants create drug dealers

Imagine yourself as a poor African-American kid living in a run down, segregated neighborhood.  While many white kids at your school started out way ahead of you because their parents made the time to read to them at early ages and provided them with a range of travel and activities. In other words, school has never been easy for you.

Now, in middle school, you have two different alternatives for your life. One alternative is to escape the ghetto and become a teacher. You’ll work harder than you ever dreamed at school to turn your grades around. Consequently, you’ll probably be abandoned by your friends for acting white. If you actually graduate from high school, get accepted at a college and manage to survive all the forms to get financial aid, you’ll more than likely move from the only world you’ve ever known into a white college town.  If you beat the odds (again) and  graduate from college, you’ll maybe make $35,000 a year and pay taxes on that.

Or, you can say screw it to school, start selling drugs now, dropout at 16 and become a full-time drug dealer.  You’ll make more money in a week than the teacher makes all year. Move up the hierarchy and you have unlimited earnings. Flashy cars, cool clothes, sex and prestige, all there for the taking.

These are the perverse incentives the War On Drugs created. Throw one kid in jail or kill another one in a shootout and you have a dozen more minority kids without other great choices wanting to take their places.  In areas with little hope, the opportunity to make unlimited money in a discrimination free industry stifles incentive to succeed legally.

The color of justice

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, dwarfing the rate of nearly every other nation, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies.  Many of these inmates are in jail because of drug crimes.  A study published in The Journal of Law and Economics, vol. XLIV (April 2001), authored by David B. Mustard at the University of Georgia found, “An individual sentenced in the same district court, who commits the same offense, and has the same criminal history and offense level as another person receives a different sentence on the basis of race, ethnicity, or gender. The percentage difference is greatest for those convicted of drug trafficking, where blacks are assigned sentences 13.7 percent longer than whites.”

Longer drug sentences for blacks undermines faith in our criminal justice system. This is another byproduct of the War On Drugs.

Far more important, drug laws remove the most ambitious black men from their communities. This has a severe destabilizing impact on their families and communities.

Undermine other governments

The US’s insatiable demand for drugs internationalizes our War On Drugs. Mexico’s War On Drugs, waged at our behest, has resulted in over 160,000 deaths and about a 19% drop in their GDP. It has almost completely eliminated Mexicans faith in the integrity of their criminal justice system.

One of the most basic human rights is safety, If Mexican families can’t feel safe in their homes, they will leave and guess where they are going to go?  We will never be able to build a wall high enough or thick enough to keep them out. If the US wants a secure border with Mexico, the best thing we can do is to legalize all illicit drugs and make Mexico a safer place to live.


There is also a philosophical argument for legalizing drugs. Those of us who are true conservatives believe in laissez-faire, which simply means that if what you are doing doesn’t adversely affect anyone else, government has no right to regulate your activities.

So, if you and your partner want to use cocaine at a local nightspot, that should be your right. However, there are limitations. If your senses are altered by the cocaine and you decide to drive home, you have now become a danger to everybody else on or near the roadways you intend to use. That is a problem.

The differentiation is pretty simple. Use whatever drug you want, don’t bother anyone else and that is just fine. Endanger the safety of others and expect the full force of the law applied to you.

While the United States suffers through one of the darkest leadership crises in our history, the chance for meaningful drug law reforms on the federal level are non-existent. However, it is time to start meaningful discussion, ask tough questions and educate ourselves.


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