A new conventional wisdom is on the rise: Drug prohibition, or “the war on drugs,” is a costly flop. It not only failed to cut drug use and associated social ills significantly but has also imposed additional social costs far exceeding the benefits. Those costs include violent crime linked to the black-market drug trade as well as the mass arrest and incarceration of small-time users, a disproportionate number of whom are African American.
It follows that the only solution is legalization, at least of marijuana and maybe other substances. There’s one problem: The data don’t actually show that drug prohibition is futile, that its negative side effects are worsening or that legalization would eliminate the social-policy dilemmas posed by drug abuse.
But the data do make one thing clear: If the goal of the war on drugs is to limit demand for drugs, then you can’t say the authorities are losing. According to federally sponsored surveys that track drug usage, the rate of current-month powder and crack cocaine use dropped by half in the past 10 years. Meth use fell by a third; heroin use has remained flat.
True, marijuana use rose slightly overall — but it fell among 12- to 17-year-olds, a result that even legalizers should applaud since they generally don’t favor allowing minors to smoke.
Meanwhile, even as drug prohibition continued, violent crime and property crime fell, dramatically. Not only did the number of murders in the United States decrease from 24,703 in 1991 to 14,612 in 2011, but drug-related murders declined from 1,607 to 505, according to Justice Department statistics.
It’s a myth that prisons are full of low-level pot smokers. Less than 1 percent of the state and federal prison population is doing time for pot possession alone; most of these prisoners are dealers who pleaded guilty to possession in return for a lesser sentence, according to a 2012 study.
I don’t mean to suggest that there are no good arguments for legalizing any currently illicit substance. The case for decriminalizing pot is strong, as long as accompanying limitations have real teeth.
But let’s discuss the issue on its actual merits — and not pretend that legalization is a panacea for drug abuse, and its related social ills, any more than prohibition was, or is.Charles Lane, The Washington Post