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How Legalizing Drugs Would Strengthen Democracy From Afghanistan to Mexico

Corrupt Afghan officials would lose a source of income and Latin American violence and corruption would decrease.

The UN Office of Drug Control (UNODC) has thoroughly documented the violence, crime, and corruption linked with the worldwide heroin and opium trade. The U.S. news media report every day on the mayhem and corruption of government officials caused by the drug wars in Mexico, Colombia, and other points south of our border. In Afghanistan, the Taliban tax the opium trade and protect poppy farmers from eradication, fueling the insurgency and our 11-year war.

However, these problems are all consequences of drug prohibition, not of the drugs themselves. In legal terms, drugs are malum prohibitum (wrong because prohibited by law) rather than malum in se (inherently wrong, such as theft or murder). During the U.S. experiment with Prohibition (1920-1933), alcohol was malum prohibitum; as soon as it was legalized, it again became a normal regulated, traded, and taxed consumer product.

We need to rethink our prohibition of drugs. What problem are we trying to solve by making drugs illegal? Have we chosen the most effective and affordable solution? Are the collateral consequences worth it?

We should start with the premise that neither demand for drugs nor the drugs themselves can be eliminated. UNODC estimates the ultimate street value of drugs originating in southern Afghanistan, primarily Helmand and Kandahar, as $68 billion. Where there is demand, there will be supply. If Afghan supplies were reduced, production would simply move elsewhere—as it did when it moved into Afghanistan in the 1980s after being pushed out of Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle.

Prohibition of Alcohol

The American experience of Prohibition is instructive.

The U.S. ban on alcohol served primarily to corrupt public officials and endanger the public. Supplying the unabated demand for alcohol required traffickers to pay bribes to police and politicians. As prices increased as a result, cutting quality was one way to keep the retail price down, which resulted in deaths from adulterated products. Moreover, the rise of violent, organized crime during this period—required to move the product and handle disputes within the trade—created criminal organizations that endure to this day.

The Prohibition experiment was relatively short-lived. Part of the impetus for repeal was that Prohibition was not having the intended effect of cutting either alcohol use or the social problems resulting from its abuse (the potential for alcohol tax revenues in the midst of the Great Depression was another factor). Whatever successes the experiment had were outweighed by the costs in corruption and violence, not to mention widespread public cynicism and hypocrisy.

Most importantly, the substantial and unanticipated costs of Prohibition were borne almost entirely by the United States. It was our own police and elected officials who were corrupted. It was our own cities afflicted by the criminal patronage networks battling over turf. We never attempted to force other countries to make the trade in alcohol illegal or participate in our war on alcohol.

The day after Prohibition was repealed, beer distributors no longer had to turn to the Mafia for enforcement of their franchise agreements. They took their disputes to court. The collateral violence largely stopped, and corrupt politicians and police suddenly lost a source of income. Product quality could be standardized. States could make individual decisions about regulating and taxing alcohol.

Of course, the social problems—particularly family violence—that were the ostensible reason for Prohibition continued, as they do to this day. My own experience as a prosecutor in Domestic Violence Court in Chicago in the 1980s is illustrative. If it hadn’t been for alcohol-related crimes, the court could have been closed. Alcohol had adverse effects on families that many other drugs did not have.

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