About . . . . Classes . . . . Books . . . . Vita . . . . Blog. . . . Podcast

by Peter Moskos

March 25, 2016

Legalize It All

Dan Baum has written a bunch of good books about a variety of subjects, and I've mentioned him many times on this blog (search for his name, if you want). I first met Dan and his wife, Margaret, in New Orleans in 2007. The title of my book, "In Defense of Flogging," was coined the night I met them, at dinner.

Dan is the dandy is the middle with the peach jacket and straw hat.

His latest piece in Harpers Magazine is about legalizing drugs. He's been at this for a while. Smoke and Mirrors came out in 1997. If I remember correctly, this was in Smoke and Mirrors. But maybe the time is more ripe now:
I started to ask Ehrlichman a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. “You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the 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.”
It's worth reading the whole thing for an idea about how we might be able to move forward on this whole drug and this prohibition problem.
In other words, our real drug problem — debilitating addiction — is relatively small. One longtime drug-policy researcher, Peter Reuter of the University of Maryland, puts the number of people addicted to hard drugs at fewer than 4 million, out of a population of 319 million. Addiction is a chronic illness during which relapses or flare-ups can occur, as with diabetes, gout, and high blood pressure. And drug dependence can be as hard on friends and family as it is on the afflicted. But dealing with addiction shouldn’t require spending $40 billion a year on enforcement, incarcerating half a million, and quashing the civil liberties of everybody, whether drug user or not.
So consider Portugal, which in 2001 took the radical step of decriminalizing not only pot but cocaine, heroin, and the rest of the drug spectrum. ... No other country has gone so far, and the results have been astounding.
When applying the lessons of Portugal to the United States, it’s important to note that the Portuguese didn’t just throw open access to dangerous drugs without planning for people who couldn’t handle them.
Decriminalization has been a success in Portugal. Nobody there argues seriously for abandoning the policy, and being identified with the law is good politics.
As successful as Portugal’s experiment has been, the Lisbon government still has no control over drug purity or dosage, and it doesn’t make a dime in tax revenue from the sale of drugs. Organized crime still controls Portugal’s supply and distribution, and drug-related violence, corruption, and gunned-up law enforcement continue. For these reasons, the effect of drug decriminalization on crime in Portugal is murky.
Portuguese-style decriminalization also wouldn’t work in the United States because Portugal is a small country with national laws and a national police force, whereas the United States is a patchwork of jurisdictions — thousands of overlapping law-enforcement agencies and prosecutors at the local, county, state, and federal levels.... We cannot begin to enjoy the benefits of managing drugs as a matter of health and safety, instead of as a matter of law enforcement, until the drugs are legalized at every level of American jurisprudence, just as alcohol was re-legalized when the United States repealed the Eighteenth Amendment in 1933.


Andrew Laurence said...

Except alcohol is still illegal to varying degrees in many cities and counties throughout the US.

Moskos said...

Alcohol isn't illegal. It's just regulated. You can drink it at home to your heart's content. I don't think anybody objects to local regulation, at the village or county level. No place would be forced to open a crack store.

Anonymous said...

It strikes me that there is a new push underway to restrict pain medication even more to try and banish heroin. As someone who has had some serious pain that was countered very well with modern medicine this worries me a lot...

Moskos said...

Your worries are justified. There is the assumption in the public health world that pain killers were over-prescribed in the previous decade and there has been a move to push that back.

I don't know where I stand on this. Nobody wants pain. And yet the over-pushing of pain pills then (and it was a very conscious and well intentioned effort based on the assumption that pain does your body and healing no good) does seem to be linked to the heroin epidemic today.

Kyle said...

When pharmaceutical industry no longer for profits one day, we might have some ideas of what to do. Probably never but never says never.

Isn't it well known that finding a cure for disease stops the profits and "discovering" a new disease generates fame and fortunes.

Maybe it's discovery or maybe creation, it depends on how you tell the story...

JPP said...

Have any of you read "Chasing the Scream?


I thought it was great. The author apparently falsified something in an earlier work, got dinged for it, and supposedly went all out verifying everything in this book. While reading it, I looked up random items and those checked out.

Anyway, it contained a section on Portugal and some other places that did varying degrees of legalization. I might have plugged it into an earlier comment, I'm always trying to shoehorn it into conversation.

john mosby said...

Prof, not too many people talk about one of the corollaries of any legalization plan:

What do you do with the thousands of people who have drug convictions from when it was illegal?

One option, of course, is to say too-bad-so-sad, you chose to break a law; just because the law's been repealed doesn't change your criminal past.

But I think we would very quickly be flooded with human-interest stories about people who can't get jobs, etc., over some long-ago dope bust, while meanwhile other people are walking home from work with huge stinking blunts hanging out of their mouths, getting MJ brownies with their latte at Starbucks, etc.

Do you have any opinion on this?


Moskos said...

I think you'd certainly have to release anybody still serving time for something that is legal. And I'd be all for striking criminal records so people could get jobs. But, taking politics into account, I could live with "too-bad-so-sad." Either way, I think we're still pretty far from having to consider such issues.

john mosby said...

I am thinking that, at least at a subconscious level, this recognition of how many lives were affected by the drug war lies behind much of the reluctance to legalize.

More than just the effect on offenders, we fundamentally re-ordered our society over the past 50-some years because of the War on Drugs.

So many of the investigative tactics that are used on people who never touched a drug in their lives have their root in the drug war - e.g., aggressive traffic patrols geared toward stopping a car long enough to sniff or consent-search it so it can be forfeited.

A lot of the officer-safety concerns of the past 30-some years come from fear of well-armed drug dealers who will fight to avoid long prison sentences or the wrath of their bosses.

Gun prohibition is pretty much arm in arm with drug prohibition.

On the other side, so much of the anti-police sentiment is because of enforcement of malum-prohibidum offenses, and because of fear of corruption from the huge amounts of drug money floating around.

Etc, etc. Of course, the drug war was not the sole cause - much of the traffic stuff comes from MADD, much of the gun banning comes from fear of political terror in the 60s, cops have been getting killed since 1798 for various reasons, anti-cop sentiment has roots in the racist/classist use of police in the bad old days - but the drug war definitely amped up these trends (pun intended).

But still: If you make drugs legal, how much of this edifice collapses? Would we go back to an inter-war style of minimally-intrusive policing, and minimal intrusion on the police? Or will inertia just keep it going and growing?


Moskos said...

A lot of it. You get criminals out of the drug game and stop funding criminals through the drug game and I think everything else starts to fall in place.

Though I could imagine some other moral panic, terrorism for instance, filling the same role.