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April 10, 2009 -- Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)

Column: You Can't Tell Us Drug Legalization Is Impossible

By Dan Gardner, The Ottawa Citizen

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Writing in The American Interest, esteemed political scientist Francis Fukuyama called on the United States to do more to help Mexico in its battle with the drug trade -- namely by boosting security on both sides of the border and assisting reform of the Mexican justice system. So far, so routine. But then Fukuyama made an interesting observation.

The ultimate source of the problem, Fukuyama noted, is American demand for illicit drugs -- and "the most straightforward way to reduce demand, of course, would be legalization under a tightly controlled regime."

Note the phrase "of course." Fukuyama is a leading American thinker, a conservative, whose views are widely respected by powerful people. And he is saying, almost with a shrug, that it's perfectly obvious that legalization would do away with the most terrible problems associated with illicit drugs.

But then politics rushes in. "While legalization has been proposed by many people over the years," Fukuyama writes, "it has very little chance of being enacted by Congress, and therefore is not for the time being a realistic policy choice."

For those of us who think the criminal prohibition of the production, sale, and possession of (some) drugs is the single most destructive public policy of the last century, Fukuyama's argument may be frustrating. First, he raises the possibility that serious policy thinkers finally get it. Then, he dismisses legalization as a fantasy.

But keep some history in mind.

"There is as much chance of repealing the 18th Amendment as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail," claimed Morris Sheppard, a U.S. Senator from Texas.

The 18th Amendment was the constitutional provision banning alcohol. It was passed in 1920. Sheppard made his statement in 1930.

The 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933.

Sheppard wasn't the only one caught out by history. Far from it.

"They can never repeal it," boasted Congressman Andrew Volstead in 1921.

"I will never see the day when the 18th Amendment is out of the Constitution of the U.S.," said Senator William Borah in 1929.

Prohibition's supporters had good reason to be confident. Legalization wasn't merely unpopular. It required an amendment to the constitution. "Thirteen states with a population less than that of New York State alone can prevent repeal until Halley's Comet returns," Clarence Darrow observed when Prohibition came into force in 1920. "One might as well talk about his summer vacation on Mars."

So what happened? Prohibition failed, for one thing. It failed blatantly, spectacularly. Instead of the sunny nation where children grew up innocent of the evils of alcohol, the United States became the land of bathtub gin and speakeasies. It also became the land of opportunity for every thug looking to make big money, which inevitably meant corruption and gangland violence on a scale never before experienced.

But just as important was the coming of the Great Depression. While the economy roared, most people were prepared to put up with an idealistic, but futile crusade. But with banks crashing and unemployment soaring, Prohibition felt like what it was -- an asinine waste of time and money.

The solution became something obvious. It became something you describe with the phrase "of course." Of course alcohol should be legalized. Of course. In the end, Prohibition went quietly.

No, I don't think we are at our own "of course" moment, notwithstanding Francis Fukuyama's "of course." But it is conceivable we are heading that way.

In private conversations, I have heard many senior people say "of course." I suspect the number of those thinking "of course" grows daily.

CNN's coverage of the bloodshed in Mexico has repeatedly raised legalization as an option worth debating. That's a big change.

Critically, however, we lack the personal experience that people had when they judged alcohol prohibition a failure. Most people today don't know that drugs have not always been criminalized. Fewer still know that when drugs were legal, they were not a source of ghettoes, gang wars, and narco-states.

They do know, however, that developed countries spend tens of billions of dollars every year trying to stamp out the illicit drug trade. And they do know drugs are cheaper and more widely available than ever.

They also know we face an economic crisis. As in 1933, they may conclude that there are better ways to spend precious tax dollars than trying to enforce unenforceable laws.

The political barrier remains massive, but in politics even the mightiest wall can turn to vapour with startling speed -- a fact Fukuyama implicitly acknowledged when he said legalization was not a realistic policy choice "for the time being."

It was impossible that alcohol would be legalized only a few years before it was legalized. It was impossible that a black man would become president of the United States in the year that the black president of the United States was born.

The history of politics is stuffed with such transformation. Only 15 years ago, the NDP government of Ontario tore itself apart over a modest plan to extend benefits to same-sex partners. Gay marriage? Gay marriage was a fantasy. And today, that fantasy is law.

Never doubt that hummingbirds can fly to Mars.

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