Last weekend I spoke at a drug policy conference at the University of Texas at El Paso. It was put together in response to a resolution adopted last January by the El Paso City Council that urged the support of "an honest, open national debate on ending the prohibition on narcotics."
This resolution was in turn adopted as a result of the enormous and continuing violence among warring drug cartels across the Rio Grande River from El Paso in Juarez, Mexico.
After my presentation it struck me that through all of these many years I have been speaking about this critical issue, I have never heard anyone who supports the status quo tell us what our goals actually are for our country's drug policy.
So, with the understanding that we are all on the same side of this issue, namely we all want to reduce drug abuse and all of the harm and misery that accompanies it, I have made a list of the top 10 goals that I think we are trying to accomplish in this area, in order of importance. See if you agree. They are:
You might want to replace one of these goals with another, or readjust the order, but I anticipate that most people would basically agree with those top 10 goals. Please give it some thought.
Now please give the subject some further thought, because I genuinely believe that treating the manufacture and sale of these drugs just like we treat alcohol -- for adults -- will actually accomplish each of those goals, and that pursuing our present policy of drug prohibition will never accomplish any of them.
The last part of that comment has already been proved, because we have been actively pursuing our present policy since the early 1970s, and throughout that entire time, the situation has demonstrably only gotten worse.
If we were to allow these drugs to be manufactured by reputable pharmaceutical or tobacco companies on low bid contract with the government, and then sold to adults at government package stores in brown packaging without any trade names or any advertising whatsoever, and at prices that are about half of what they are being sold for today out on the streets, the drugs would be less available to children.
Ask our young people yourselves, and they will tell you what they tell me, that it is easier for them today to get marijuana, or any other drug, if they want to, than it is alcohol. Why? Because today's illegal drug dealers don't ask for ID!
It would also almost completely stop the crime in the manufacture and distribution of drugs, just as the repeal of Alcohol Prohibition put the Al Capones of this world out of business.
Today if Budweiser has distribution problems with Coors, they don't take guns to the streets to resolve them. Instead they file a complaint in court, and have it peacefully adjudicated by judges like me.
In a similar fashion, the corruption caused by the huge amounts of available cash in today's illegal distribution of drugs would virtually disappear.
Why? Because the price of the drugs would be cut in half, and it would still be illegal to buy, use, sell or possess drugs not purchased from the government outlets, illegal dealers would lose a great deal of their present market.
That would run most of them out of business. ( And if cutting the price in half would not be sufficient, the price could always be reduced further. )
That would also seriously reduce the flow of drugs into our country because there would not be a market for them.
Furthermore, because drug dealers would no longer be making obscene profits from the sale of illicit drugs, they would not have the money to purchase guns here, and smuggle them into countries south of our border.
Most of the health risks of the usage of these drugs today are caused by the unknown strength and unknown purity of the drugs, and things like the AIDS virus and hepatitis are transmitted by using unclean needles. These are easy problems to resolve.
In fact the FDA resolved virtually all of these problems with over-the-counter and prescription drugs years ago. Similarly, the repeal of Alcohol Prohibition virtually eliminated the "bathtub gin" impurities problems.
Because most of the losses of our civil liberties have come from cases involving drug offenses, that trend would be discontinued, thus reducing the erosion of our civil liberties. And because we would not have the illicit drug dealers in business so much any more, and drug users would not automatically be criminals, that would materially reduce the numbers of people we would be forced to incarcerate.
Furthermore, because we would no longer be doing things like arresting sick people for the use of medical marijuana, or seeing people openly selling drugs on street corners, or trying to enforce laws that make literally millions of people in our country automatic criminals for smoking marijuana, that would increase respect for our nation's laws, as well as the agencies that are attempting to enforce our laws.
The last goal to address would be the issue of crimes committed by drug users, both to get money to purchase the drugs, and crimes committed while under their influence.
I could argue that with the price cut in half, drug addicted people would only need to steal half as much to get their drugs.
But many would argue that, because the price was reduced, those people would simply use more drugs -- and they might be right.
But several countries such as Holland and Portugal have found that the act of decriminalizing drugs has made drug-addicted people much less fearful of their own government.
That has resulted in them being much more likely to come forward and seek drug treatment.
Furthermore, now that those governments are saving the money they previously spent to investigate, prosecute and incarcerate users, more money is available to pay for treatment.
In addition, they found that when drug addiction is treated as a medical issue, the usage of drugs is deglamorized, to the extent that younger people are not nearly as likely to go down that road. So for all of those reasons, drug crimes and drug abuse in those countries have been materially reduced.
Regarding crimes committed by people under the influence of drugs, those would still be prosecuted, just like we do today with alcohol-related offenses.
Holding people accountable for their actions, instead of what they put into their bodies, is what the criminal justice system was designed for, and that is a truly legitimate criminal justice function.
What is the difference? Because when someone drives a motor vehicle under the influence of any of these mind-altering and sometimes addicting drugs, etc., they are putting our safety at risk. And they should continue to be prosecuted vigorously for those acts.
So if you really want to achieve the goals of our nation's drug policy, help me to repeal the policy of Drug Prohibition, which has led us down the wrong path for decades.
And that is not even to mention the large amounts of revenue the governments can generate by taxing these sales.
So that one act will make the world a safer and more prosperous place for us, and for our children. What do you think?
James P. Gray is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of Wearing the Robe -- the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today's Courts (Square One Press, 2008)
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