Why We Should Legalize Drugs
On March 13th, 2020, Breonna Taylor was killed while the police were raiding her home under the pretense that her boyfriend possessed illicit drugs.
The officers — who had a “no-knock” search warrant — forced entry into the home, leading to the shootout that took Taylor’s life. The Supreme Court has established that police raids without announcement are constitutional, claiming that suspects might flee or destroy evidence because of “today’s drug culture”.
Even though no drugs were found in Taylor’s apartment, the drug policy of the United States is largely to blame for her death.
Like many aspects of American history, the underlying motivation behind the so-called “War on Drugs” is more nefarious than we like to acknowledge.
Conservative politicians from the 1960s through the 1990s maligned drugs using race-baiting rhetoric that appealed to suburban whites. Richard Nixon’s domestic policy advisor John Ehrlichman openly described the political strategy as follows:
We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the [Vietnam] war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.
Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
For Republicans and conservative Democrats, criminalizing drugs boosted electoral results by removing the least politically favorable demographics from society. Meanwhile, the human toll inflicted upon those who spent their lives in prison was ignored. The number of Americans incarcerated more than quadrupled from 1970 to 2001, and a majority of those imprisoned for drug charges were African Americans.
As a result of this effort, the notion that drugs are purely harmful has crept into the public consciousness. The sense that an individual’s use of drugs somehow presents a public danger continues to influence policymakers today.
Our current president is a descendant of the Drug-War era. Joe Biden authored the 1994 crime bill, which backed grant programs that encouraged officers to carry out more drug-related arrests. While a majority of Americans now support legalizing marijuana, Biden refuses to even take it off the Schedule 1 controlled substances list, which he could do through executive action. Worse still, he fired staffers over past marijuana use, even though his former boss Barack Obama and his current Vice President Kamala Harris have admitted to smoking weed.
Biden’s administration, the “progressive” option in our politics, reveals how much work still needs to be done on this issue.
From a standpoint of political philosophy, the criminalization of drugs runs counter to our values. If we believe in a free society, we must afford adults the personal choice to alter their state of mind. Indeed, we already do so for alcohol and cigarettes, despite knowing these can be addictive and deadly.
Moreover, from an empirical perspective, we know that a policy of legalization, taxation, and regulation of drugs works very well.
Living in Colorado, I have seen firsthand that marijuana legalization and psychedelic decriminalization has not led to anarchic disorder. In fact, it has boosted our state’s economy. When we legalized marijuana, the state began charging a 15% retail tax along with licensing fees, leading to over $300 million of new revenue per year.
Meanwhile, teen marijuana use in Colorado has actually declined. One explanation is that when a substance becomes legal and mainstream, it loses its “edgy” appeal to disgruntled youths. In Colorado’s case, we have also directed a small share of our new revenue towards education programs encouraging kids not to experiment with drugs until they reach legal age.
Denver, along with the District of Columbia and a handful of other American cities, have also decriminalized psychedelics. These initiatives have helped open the door for promising research on how these substances (e.g. magic mushrooms) may treat depression, anxiety, and addiction.
While the U.S. is quietly running these progressive experiments at the local level, no country provides a better case study in drug decriminalization than Portugal. In 2001, the European nation decriminalized all drugs and began treating addiction strictly as a disease to be ameliorated, rather than as a deviance to be penalized. As a result of the policy, the population experienced fewer drug overdoses and a substantially less crowded criminal justice system.
When you pivot from the topic of legalizing marijuana and psychedelics to legalizing “hard drugs” like heroin and cocaine, the American public tends to balk. After all, we assume that these drugs are highly addictive and often lethal, so we should fight to remove them from anyone’s possession.
But recent evidence is challenging that notion. Dr. Carl Hart of Columbia University, himself a recreational heroin user, has shown that addiction rates for hard drugs are lower than you might expect. About 20% of cocaine users and roughly 25% of heroin users are addicted, meaning that the vast majority live normal lives while enjoying the biochemical benefits of these drugs in moderation. In fact, these addiction rates are only modestly higher than that of alcohol (between 10% and 20%).
The effects of all drugs depend on one’s unique psychology and the manner in which they consume. Many people find drugs to be positively transformative or even life-saving, but that side of the equation is rarely discussed in our political discourse.
Through legalization, or at least decriminalization, we can educate the public on both the potential benefits and the dangers. We can regulate the drugs such that they are properly labeled and not “laced” with unknown ingredients. We can also invest in treatment programs for those who are addicted and begin to de-stigmatize this important mental health issue.
We ought to view the drugs themselves as a neutral tool, like a knife. A knife can be used by a burglar to stab you, but it can also be used by a surgeon to save your life.
Drugs will exist whether the government criminalizes them or not. The only question is whether we will seize the opportunity to honestly educate the public, regulate the substances, and collect tax revenue from the transactions. It would be a strong alternative to the backward policy of the last five decades.