I'm the last guy who ought to argue for the legalization of meth. As a practicing criminal defense attorney, I make a good income from defending people who are charged with drug crimes. If the drug war ended, I would lose a substantial portion of my income. Additionally, some would call me a health nut. I go to the gym six times a week and eat organic foods as often as possible. I wouldn't change my healthy lifestyle if drugs were legal. I have three little kids. I don't want them ever to become drug addicts. I want them to grow up in a safe world. Indeed, that's exactly why I want the drug war to end.
When I was in law school, a wise law professor of mine taught me that if you are asking the wrong question, the answer doesn't matter. In regards to meth, the question is not whether meth is dangerous and unhealthy. Over the years, I have represented countless meth users. I have seen the consequences of meth use up close. I am convinced meth use will likely ruin the user's life. It is an extraordinarily dangerous addictive drug. Few drugs are more addictive or dangerous than meth. Many of those who oppose legalization of meth identify the horrors of meth use. I entirely agree with their assessment of meth's dangers. Asking whether meth is dangerous or unhealthy or addictive is not the right question.
The relevant question is whether our society would be better served if meth was manufactured, distributed, bought and sold legally. The answer is yes. There are two related but separate reasons why ending the drug war is critical. First, a free society requires that the drug war end. I refer to this argument as the freedom argument. Second, the consequences of ending the drug war would yield economic and other benefits which would greatly benefit our society. I refer to this argument as the consequentialist argument.
Most readers will not be persuaded by the freedom argument. This fact is disturbing to me. In fact, many of the issues which plague our world will persist unless and until people come to respect the principles embodied in terms such as individual responsibility, self ownership and freedom. These concepts are what our country was founded upon and the very reason why America prospered. Now, they are given mere lip service if they are considered at all. If you shrug your shoulders and brush off the freedom argument, you should be ashamed of yourself. Whether you realize it or not, you are the problem.
The Freedom Argument
I'm a good dad. I don't want my kids using meth. Indeed, I will force my opinion about not using meth upon my kids. I will prevent them from using meth by force if necessary. As a dad, I have other policies as well. For example, my kids are not allowed to ride their motorized quads without helmets or to ride in the car without seatbelts. They are not allowed to smoke cigarettes or skydive either. However, at some point, my kids will be responsible to decide for themselves what activities are too dangerous for them. Both assessing the dangerousness of an activity and determining how much danger is acceptable will become the exclusive domain of each of my kids as it pertains to them. Resolving these questions for one's self is an important task and responsibility of any free person.
The question of who gets to make decisions about the disposition of certain property is central to understanding freedom. Who gets to decide what activities are too dangerous for you? Should I get to decide what activities are too dangerous for you? What about your neighbor? Or the majority? Or the president? Or congress? Or some judge? In a free society, the owner of the property gets to decide how the property is used. Because you own your body, I assert that you should decide how your body is used or abused.
In terms of the freedom argument, the question of legalization of meth poses exactly the same question as many other issues currently confounding our fellow citizens. The following non-exhaustive list contains questions which are each different versions of the same question about how a particular body is used:
Each question begs the initial question about who gets to decide how a particular human body is used. Those of us who are pro-freedom would in each case conclude that the owner of the particular human body in question should decide how that body is used. The initial issue of who decides must be resolved first.
Although I would try my best to persuade others not to use meth, I concede it is not my decision. Among adults, persuasion is fine, but coercion is not. I will not force others to live by my assessments of dangers. I respect the property of other people such that I respect their right to use their property in ways I vigorously disagree with. I have no claim on how others use their property unless and until their activities trespass upon my property.
The freedom argument is much bigger than the question of whether meth should be legal. It certainly resolves the question, but it raises larger questions about the very nature of government. Any legitimate role of government is confined to protecting rights. Indeed, unless you disagree with the principles upon which this country was founded and believe government is the source of rights which may be distributed to us or taken away, you must agree that government can have no rights other than the ones we individually delegate to it. Because you have no right to be my daddy, you have no such right to delegate to government. Further, because no person individually has any such right, even the majority of people added together collectively have no such right. Therefore, when the government acts as my daddy, it acts wrongfully; even if it acts pursuant to an accurately counted democratic vote. Although it is perfectly fine for me to act as a daddy to my kids, the government has no right to act as a daddy for us.
Some people posit that legalized meth would send the wrong message to people about using meth. However, the government's role is not to send messages to us about what is right or wrong or good or bad. We don't need messages from government. Free people determine for themselves how to run their lives. I have a right to be a self destructive idiot if I choose. I own me.
Additionally, the "messages from government" objection overlooks an important point. The concepts of legal and illegal are far different from the concepts of right and wrong or good and bad. Because an activity is legally permissible does not obligate people to conclude such an activity is right or good. Merely because the law allows my kids to insult other kids doesn't prevent my wife and me from successfully teaching them not to do it. The unwillingness or inability of many people to invest the mental acuity to distinguish between these concepts has contributed to an intellectual feeblemindedness which is akin to a malignant tumor killing our society. The "messages from government" objection nourishes that tumor. We should embrace the concept that we are free to adopt personal standards of conduct which exceed the minimal threshold defined by law.
I regret devoting so few words to the freedom argument. It deserves much more. Many others have far more eloquently detailed the case for freedom. I hope to live to witness the day when the freedom argument is accorded the respect it deserves. I hope this skeletal argument stirs the interest of those who read it and encourages them to explore it more fully. The reason our society has been deteriorating in so many ways is because it has come to accord less and less respect to the freedoms of others. Winning the freedom argument is the only way to destroy the cancer that infects our world.
The Consequentialist Argument
Some people say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. They are right. The government has been recklessly ramping up the war on drugs for the past thirty five years. Every year we get tougher laws and tougher sentences. Approximately 1.6 million people are needlessly arrested every year for non-violent drug offenses. Many more non-violent drug users are simply charged without arrest. Some of them are students who lose their student loans and can no longer afford college. Others are people who hold professional licenses and can no longer work in their professions. Lives are being needlessly ruined.
The growth of the prison industry has mushroomed. We now have private companies in the prison business. This is no surprise when you consider that the United States claims 4.6% of the world's population but 22.5% of the world's prison population. The DEA has grown from 2,775 employees in 1972 to almost 11,000 employees with 86 foreign offices in 62 countries in 2005. We have well over two million people in prison. Since 1980, America's general population has increased 20%, while America's prison population has increased at twenty times that rate or an astonishing 400%. America imprisons more people as a percentage of our population than any other country in the world. This is a sad state of affairs for any country; especially one which refers to itself as the land of the free.
Despite the explosive expansion of government to fight the war on drugs, drug use is more prevalent today than it was before the war on drugs started. Additionally, drugs are cheaper, more potent and easier to get than they were in the early years of the drug war. Throwing more money at the issue has not resulted in fewer people using drugs. Even the federal government admits drug use has increased recently from 6% in 1993 to over 8% in 2003. Despite the frantically increasing efforts to curb the flow of drugs, high school students report drugs are still easy to obtain. Almost 90% of twelfth graders report marijuana is "very easy" or "fairly easy" to get. Over 47% of twelfth graders say cocaine is "very easy" or "fairly easy" to get and more than 32% say heroin is "very easy" or "fairly easy" to get. I have had clients tell me they became addicted to drugs when they were in prison. Even in a prison setting, drugs are prevalent.
Not only are drugs readily available, some of them have become more dangerous as a result of the drug war. Looking specifically at meth, the drug war has resulted in exacerbating the dangers associated with amphetamine use. While attempting to put the hysteria currently surrounding meth use in perspective, a columnist named Jack Shafer who writes for Slate aptly stated the following:
In the mid-1960s, just before the government declared war on amphetamines, the average user swallowed his pills, which were of medicinal purity and potency. Snorting and smoking stimulants was almost unheard of, and very few users injected intravenously. Today, 40 years later, snorting, smoking, and injecting methamphetamines of unpredictable potency and dubious purity has become the norm-with all the dreadful health consequences. If the current scene illustrates how the government is winning the war on drugs, I'd hate to see what losing looks like. See www.slate.com/id/2123838, August 3, 2005.
The United States now spends over fifty billion dollars every year to combat the war on drugs. The war on drugs has been a colossal and unparalleled failure. Despite my countless conversations with judges, prosecutors, police officers, DEA agents and drug dealers, it is extraordinarily rare for me to find anyone who thinks the drug war is working or will ever work under any circumstances. Indeed, despite my countless invitations, I have yet to find anyone willing to debate me publicly on the drug war. Imagine a fifty billion dollar annual program nobody seems willing to defend.
I understand why nobody wants to debate me on this issue. I believe the people who work in the justice system, and truly understand the problems associated with the drug war, know they would be debating the wrong side of the issue. I recently argued the case for meth legalization before a group of judges and prosecutors. I was disappointed during question time when, despite my provoking and challenging them, there was only one half-hearted attempt to engage me on the issues. The case for legalization is overwhelming.
I have had occasion to talk privately and confidentially with many drug dealers for well over a decade. I estimate I have represented hundreds of drug dealers. Although some have simply been users who sell to support their habit, others have been major players in big drug organizations. I have found many of them to be bright people who are well aware that an end to the drug war would immediately put an end to their businesses. They realize that they could not compete with large corporations in a legal market. Their ability to make money by manufacturing, distributing and selling drugs exists solely because of the drug war. They very much want the war on drugs to continue and even expand.
Many drug dealers understand that each large drug bust brings increased profits for them. Although a drug seizure is bad news for the particular drug dealer involved, it is wonderful news for all the other drug dealers in the market. When you see government agents celebrating a large drug seizure, imagine all the other drug dealers celebrating along with them.
The economics of drug sales are no different than any other product sold in the market. Every big drug seizure causes a temporary decrease in the supply of that drug in the relevant market. However, the drug seizure doesn't affect the demand for the drugs. Drug users still want drugs despite some drug dealer being arrested. When the demand remains constant and the supply is decreased, prices go up. Imagine being a drug dealer with a big supply of drugs on hand when prices suddenly go up. It would be accurate to say that drug dealers gain the most, through increased profits, when government agents make a seizure. Increased profits also serve to entice people to embark on new careers as drug dealers. Drug dealers love the drug war and do not want it to end. If you support the drug war, you are on the side of, and act as an unpaid lobbyist for the plight of the drug dealer.
Some of the drug dealers I have met are actually very nice, non-violent people. I have represented drug dealers who do not use drugs at all. They were simply unable or unwilling to refuse an illegal opportunity to make a lot of money. However, some of the drug dealers I have met are not nice people. They sell their drugs with the help of violent street gangs. Some of these gang members intentionally market drugs to kids. Because gang members generally can not utilize the court system to settle disputes over drug sales, nor can they insure their merchandise against losses, violence and guns are necessarily involved.
Simply causing meth to be manufactured illegally is by itself a huge problem. As a result of illegal meth labs, toxic chemicals used to produce methamphetamine are often discarded in rivers, fields, and forests. The environmental damage which occurs results in ever expanding cleanup costs. The massive growth in costs to cleanup such environmental messes is also illustrative of the failure of current policy. The DEA's annual cost for cleanup of clandestine meth laboratories in the United States has increased steadily from 2 million in 1995 to 23.8 million a mere seven years later in 2002. A huge collection of well documented facts about the failure of the current drug policy can be found at www.drugwarfacts.org.
I have heard the saying that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. I suspect some criminal defense lawyer in the 1920's incurred wrath from the establishment for writing an article advocating the legalization of alcohol. I would bet the nice attorney was attacked by small thinkers who repeatedly pointed out the harmful attributes of alcohol.
In case you are unaware, the government decided in 1919 to amend the United States Constitution to grant power to congress to prohibit the manufacture, sale and distribution of alcohol. Their drug war played out just like ours; a complete and total disaster. However, it was the best thing that ever happened to organized crime. The manufacture, sale and distribution of alcohol were conducted entirely in illegal and violent markets. Criminals prospered and criminal organizations grew. A major crime wave began in the 1920s and continually increased until the end of prohibition in 1933 when it immediately started to reverse. Prohibition did nothing to curb the desire of people to use alcohol. Indeed, both the per capita consumption of alcohol as well as the rate of alcoholism increased during prohibition. Illegal clandestine stills manufactured alcohol of inconsistent and unpredictable quality. Law enforcement was overwhelmed chasing after people involved in alcohol related crimes. Does any of this seem familiar to you?
In 1933, they figured it out and repealed the eighteenth amendment. To be fair, we still have people with substantial alcohol abuse problems. It is a real problem. We have no shortage of alcohol related crimes. However, violent criminal street gangs do not make money from the sale of alcohol. Although few people "home brew" alcoholic beverages, people do not brew alcoholic beverages in clandestine labs. Nobody is offered large cash rewards to transport alcohol. The Budweiser guy doesn't fight the Miller guy if they both happen to arrive at the store at the same time to deliver their drug. Alcohol companies settle disputes peacefully in court. Alcoholics can seek help without the fear of criminal prosecutions. More resources can be devoted to apprehending real thugs because our justice system is not overloaded with cases of people manufacturing, distributing or selling alcohol. Isn't this obviously a better deal?
We know certain things for sure. If meth was no longer illegal:
If you support maintaining the war on drugs, you must necessarily conclude that either I am wrong about the above six assertions or that the benefits of the drug war outweigh the obvious benefits contained in the six assertions. It is difficult for me to imagine one could rationally and honestly dispute any of the six assertions. They are obvious and virtually guaranteed to flow from legalization. Therefore, a drug war supporter is left with the argument that the drug war's benefits outweigh the benefits contained in the six assertions. If this is your position, I challenge you to honestly reweigh the costs and benefits of each scenario. Unless you put your finger on the scale because you personally benefit from the drug war, you must conclude legalization wins.
I do not intend to claim that the above six assertions are the only benefits of legalization. I list them together because I find them to be indisputable. There are other benefits of legalization. I suspect many people would either not experiment with or stop using meth. Recently, a teenage meth user confirmed for me that she and her friends started using meth at least in part because it was illegal. I cannot recall any friends of mine who didn't drink alcohol prior to reaching age twenty-one. Indeed, I consumed more alcohol prior to reaching age twenty-one than I do today or since I have been age twenty-one and one month.
In countries where the alcohol drinking age is sixteen, rates of alcohol related problems appear to be lower than in the United States where the drinking age is twenty-one. The National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse reports that in 2003, 5.55% of Americans were either alcohol abusing or alcohol dependent. The Austrian drinking age is sixteen and 2.2% are regarded as alcohol dependent. The German drinking age is sixteen and 3.9% of Germans' alcohol use is considered harmful.
Even during prohibition, while rates of death from alcoholism and cirrhosis were rising in the United States, they were decreasing during the same time period in Great Britain, Denmark and Ireland where alcohol use was legal. I recently traveled to Amsterdam where marijuana use is legal for those over eighteen years of age. Marijuana use among minors in Amsterdam is decreasing. Indeed, the rate of marijuana use by minors is five times less than what it is in the United States. Even among adults, the rate of marijuana use in the United States is twice as high as in the Netherlands where use of marijuana is legal. Many of the locals informed me that marijuana use is simply not exciting and they virtually don't ever use it unless people from out of town are visiting. As you may expect, I had a lot of questions for proprietors of marijuana coffee shops. I personally witnessed a peaceful and safe marijuana trade in Amsterdam. Although I wouldn't want to live there for unrelated economic reasons, the Netherlands is a good example of why legalization makes sense.
Tobacco is a far deadlier drug than is meth. For the year 2000, tobacco is blamed for causing 435,000 deaths. Deaths resulting from the direct or indirect use of all illegal drugs including meth, cocaine, OxyContin, heroine and ecstasy for the same year total 17,000. id. Despite the fact that tobacco is legal, tobacco use is declining. In 1956, 42% of adults smoked. In 1980, only 33% of Americans smoked. Additionally, in 1977, 29% of high school seniors smoked. Four years later, the number of high school seniors who smoke had fallen to 20%. Education about the dangers of tobacco use can be credited for the decline of tobacco use which occurred while the drug was legally available and without any of the crime and violence associated with the drug war. The recent rise in popularity of non-alcoholic beer and low nicotine cigarettes can be attributed to the same phenomenon. The same beneficial effects could be applicable to meth and other illegal drugs.
Fortunately, people are slowly waking up to the fact that this war on drugs is the entirely wrong approach. I am encouraged by a courageous group of law enforcement and former law enforcement members who have joined together to form a group entitled Law Enforcement Against Prohibition or LEAP. A visit to their website at http://leap.cc is well worth the time invested. The over two thousand law enforcement members of LEAP state the following, "The membership of LEAP believe to save lives and lower the rates of disease, crime and addiction, as well as to conserve tax dollars, we must end drug prohibition." The members of LEAP are willing and eager to debate their views with anyone willing to try to defend the drug war. Also, judges are finally starting to speak out. See www.judgesagainstthedrugwar.org which contains judicial opinions critical of the drug war.
Astute observers of the drug war might point out that the $50-$69 billion dollars currently being spent on the drug war annually could be used to more effectively address the problems associated with drug abuse. That money could go a long way to facilitate drug abuse education, treatment and prevention.
Additionally, some may argue that legalization of drugs could be administered in much the same way alcohol is currently dealt with. Certainly, people who commit real crimes should be punished whether or not they were using drugs at the time. Legalization of drugs does not mean laws must permit unsafe drug impaired drivers on the roads. Further, employers and other private citizens would be free to prohibit any and all drug use at their workplaces or on their property as they can now with alcohol. Indeed, what would change with a reasonable scheme of legalization would be a deletion of much of the crime and violence only; everything else would remain much the same or improve. It is a substantially better deal than the ongoing and worsening disaster we currently endure.
The drug war is un-American. One cannot simultaneously value freedom and yet support a governmental scheme which denies the individual his or her sovereignty over his or her own body. Indeed, control over one's own body is the most fundamental of all rights. Worse, the drug war has effectively birthed countless violent criminal enterprises. This possibly well intentioned effort has resulted in effectively creating our 51st state; the state of incarceration. The state's population is growing out of control and it is choking the life out of the other 50 states. Thousands of peaceful Americans are currently living in cages because of the drug war. The drug war is lunacy and it must end immediately. As it did for the revolutionaries who founded our country, the time has come for us to be bold and courageous. We must speak out against this horrendous mistake. We have the better case.
Marc J. Victor is a practicing criminal defense attorney located in Chandler, Arizona. He can be reached via his website at www.attorneyforfreedom.com
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