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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.

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The Karzai government has also chosen not to implement those provisions of the 2004 Afghan constitution that call for the election of mayors and district and city councils. Instead, these councils do not exist, and all local officials report to the president. One can only imagine that all these officials are in place for a reason. For example, the mayor of Kandahar, a city of 800,000, is a presidential appointee, not answerable to local citizens. As a result, prior to his assassination in 2011, the president’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, had a free hand in managing affairs in Kandahar province. As in Latin America, democratic accountability is the loser. The money at stake is so overwhelming that honest and accountable government cannot be implemented without changing the drug nexus. The incentives are just too strong.

The “L” Word

If opium and heroin (as well as marijuana) were legalized, what would happen? Corrupt Afghan officials would suddenly lose a source of income, as poppy is illegal in Afghanistan primarily at U.S. insistence. The Taliban would be unable to extract protection money from farmers, or tax the drug trade. The war might wind down to a speedy conclusion, and Afghanistan could fund its own development and security forces out of sales of a legal commodity. Latin American democracy too would undoubtedly be strengthened and violence would decrease.

The U.S. government could save all the money it now spends on the DEA, interdiction, and drug prosecutions. States could make their own decisions about drugs. Local police and sheriffs could quit chasing after pot growers (who could now standardize and advertise product quality and potency), and devote scarce public safety budgets to the crimes that the average citizen prioritizes. State prisons that are overwhelmed with drug offenders could downsize. Of course, the entire anti-drug enterprise of U.S. officials and government contractors, greased by U.S. security assistance to drug producer nations, would drastically downsize too—and so the anti-drug lobby seeking to preserve its livelihood would undoubtedly be a political force in opposition. Likewise the manufacturers of medicinal morphine who have a monopoly on licensed poppy from India.

On the demand side of the equation, prices might well drop as the costs of paying protection were eliminated. It’s possible that usage would increase, but users don’t seem to have much difficulty obtaining supplies right now. With all the resources freed from fighting an unwinnable war against drugs, we could attend to the social problems that facilitate certain kinds of drug use (heroin use being primarily a lower-class phenomenon) and result from substance abuse. There are many options to explore once the problem is defined honestly and resources are available for experimentation.

Even if the middle class doesn’t care what happens to the lower class, the costs of prosecution and incarceration are a direct drain on the public purse, and an indirect drain as imprisonment itself causes family disruption and disintegration. Under a legalization regime, we would no longer have so many poorly educated young men with drug convictions rendered ineligible for future legitimate employment. Curtailed voting rights for those with felony convictions also means that individuals affected by drug laws have had no voice in changing them—a fundamental requirement of a democracy. Citizens in the 1930s could vote their interest in repealing Prohibition. These rights must be restored.

The immediate response to potential drug legalization is usually, “Why do you want our children hooked on drugs?!” (The rationales of 1914 are no longer mentioned.) Remember, however, that those campaigning for repeal of Prohibition did not say, “We’re in favor of alcohol-induced family violence.” Or, “Let’s have more alcohol-related carnage on the highways.” People were quite aware of the problems—which continued during Prohibition as before and since. We as a society concluded in 1933, however, that prohibition was an ineffective way of dealing with this particular societal ill, and that illegality created second- and third-order effects that were far worse than the evil that Prohibition was supposed to address.

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