Legalizing Drugs Makes Matters Worse
When I mentioned in my last column that our federal (and many state) drug laws were irrational, I was immediately greeted with the demand that we solve the problem by legalizing drugs.
If only things were so simple. The central problem with legalizing drugs is that it will increase drug consumption under almost any reasonable guess as to what the legalization (or more modestly, the decriminalization) regime would look like. The debate, I think, must be between those who admit this increase and then explain why they would find it tolerable and those who admit the increase and find it intolerable.
Illegal drugs—and here I refer chiefly to cocaine, heroin, PCP, and methamphetamine—have three prices that are much higher than what they would be if the sale were legal.
First, under legalization the cash price would be lower. No one knows by how much, but the most cautious scholar says by a factor of three, the boldest one says by a factor of 20. Now take a powerfully addictive substance, one that not only operates on but modifies the human brain by producing compelling effects that often can only be achieved again by increasing the dosage, and ask how many more people would buy it if its cash price were only 30 percent or even 5 percent of its current price. Unless you think that everybody who wants the drug is already using it, a most unlikely possibility, then the answer must be—a lot.
Second, under legalization the quality price would be lower. Drugs are now purchased in most cases from people who offer no meaningful promise of quality. You can buy cocaine or heroin that has been cut five times or 20 times, and cut with sugar or rat poison. The Food and Drug Administration does not require accurate labeling, and unless you are a repeat customer, you probably have no idea what you are getting. Feel like taking a chance? Buy a drug from the furtive fellow on the street corner.
Third, under legalization the search price would be zero. You would not have to search or run risks of being mugged or arrested. Maybe you would be able to buy it in the local pharmacy, but you would get it from some dealer operating in the open with no risk to you.
Cut all of these three prices—the cash cost, the risk of not getting a decent quality, and the absence of searching and running risks—and the total price reduction would not be by a factor of 20 but probably by a factor of 50. Consumption will go up dramatically.
Now what happens? Here is where the only meaningful debate can exist. Do you think that there will be a decrease in drug crime? Maybe—if the crime committed by users seeking money to buy drugs and the dealers protecting their right to sell drugs falls by an amount greater than the increase in crime committed by addicted users who are no longer capable of holding a job. Not all coke or heroin addicts are incapacitated, but a significant fraction—perhaps one-fifth, perhaps more—are. Say we have 1 million users now, with 200,000 of them so dependent on the drug that they are useless for any activity, including holding a job. Now suppose after legalization we have 5 million users, with 1 million totally zonked.
We can support the 1 million on welfare, though I think the political chance of that is utterly remote. Or we can let them fend for themselves by stealing. They may well steal more than the 200,000 steal when the price of drugs is much higher. Take a guess. But remember that after we create the 1 million, we can't turn the clock back. We shall have them forever.
Or to take another example. Suppose we have 15,000 people killed by drunken drivers. How many will be killed by coke- or heroin-addicted drivers if access to those products becomes as easy as access to alcohol is now? There is no way to tell, but it would be foolish to assume that the number would be trivial.
James Q. Wilson is the author of books about crime, politics, bureaucracy, and human character.