By Mark Yost
Chicago, IL, USA
Drug legalization is all the rage these days. States are decriminalizing marijuana all over the country. There's a serious national debate on legalizing some so-called "softer" drugs nationwide. It's a national conversation that's long overdue.
Legalization isn't a new idea. It had been tossed around the think tanks and the college lecture circuit for decades. It got its first serious public hearing in the late-1980s, when a New York University professor named Ethan Nadelmann and Kurt Schmoke, Baltimore's affable and outspoken black mayor, starting talking it up. They both debated Bill Buckley, Bob Bartley and other conservative intellectuals, the outside-the-box thinkers who were known for looking for innovative solutions to long-intractable problems. Sadly, Nadelmann and Schmoke weren't so much ridiculed, as dismissed.
To be fair, Nadelmann and Schmoke were more in favor of decriminalization than outright legalization. But that was too nuanced a position for America's news media, whose attention span rarely ventured beyond 15 seconds, even in the 1980s. So the nightly newscasts merely dispensed with that important distinction and simply said Nadelmann and Schmoke were in favor of "legalizing drugs."
While they may have been pilloried by a simplistic media and honest conservatives alike, Nadelmann and Schmoke were basically right about the War on Drugs. It had been (and continues to be) an abysmal failure; mainly because America's War on Drugs, with its heroin-sniffing dogs, AWACs surveillance planes, and cross-border shootouts, is merely repeating many of the same mistakes that had been made during Prohibition. Only this time, the problem isn't illegally imported Canadian whisky or bathtub gin, but marijuana, heroin and cocaine, including a highly addictive, cheap derivative called crack that ravaged America's inner cities in the 1980s. More than anything, the War on Drugs failed because it almost exclusively focused on supply and barely addressed demand.
With U.S. drug policy focused almost exclusively on interdiction, the net result has been a rise in the street price of drugs, which has only made the cartels richer. The focus on interdiction has also turned America's inner cities into war zones. So Nadelmann and Schmoke were right about most everything related to U.S. drug policy in the 1980s. They were just a little bit ahead of the curve.
It wasn't until about 2008 that the idea of legalizing lesser drugs like marijuana became a serious proposition. Some cities and states have already started to decriminalize simple marijuana possession, and states like Colorado have allowed the retail sale of small amounts of recreational pot. Instead of jail time, offenders do a few hours of community service and pay a small fine. But these are mostly local, isolated efforts that have little impact on the broader, national debate about legalization. Furthermore, these local efforts create a legal conundrum: It is legal to smoke marijuana under local law, but illegal to possess and sell it under federal law.
Legalization became even more palatable when the Mexican cartels started slaughtering each other, along with innocent bystanders, including American tourists and businessmen, a few years ago. Legalization has more supporters today than ever before.
For the record, I've long been in favor of legalization. But I'm worried about how it would be implemented in America in the political climate of 2014. In the Libertarian fantasy world (and I say this having voted for Gary Johnson in the 2012 election), all drugs would be legal. But that's not how this is going to work. If marijuana is ever legalized nationwide in the U.S., it's going to be part of federal-government scheme to both grow and tax marijuana sales. That's how the politicians will sell it.
Even though I've long been in favor of legalization, I've always had two problems with the Libertarian argument. One, it assumes that the government-grown drugs will be as potent as the drugs sold by dealers on the street. It also assumes that the cartels will just walk away from the most-lucrative drug market in the world.
So while I remain in favor of legalization, and think it's long overdue, I remain skeptical that America could do it right.