The Economist Says "Legalize It"

"If only it were legitimate, there would be much to admire about the drugs industry."

So begins a survey on illegal drug use, its history, aficionados, drawbacks and its opponents. The survey appeared in the July 26th issue of the Economist, a publication not known for balancing on the limb of such controversial issues.

Yet this survey, for the most part, will warm the hearts of drug law reformers. The Economist decries the United States’ pricey war on drugs as an all-round failure that has done little to address the harm caused by drug use, while exacerbating police corruption, racism, miscarriages of justice, and straining foreign relations.

Says the Economist, "[The War on Drugs] has proved a dismal rerun of America's attempt, in 1920-33, to prohibit the sale of alcohol. That experiment -- not copied in any other big country -- inflated alcohol prices, promoted bootleg suppliers, encouraged the spread of guns and crime, increased hard-liquor drinking and corrupted a quarter of the federal enforcement agents, all within a decade. Half a century from now, America's current drugs policy may seem just as perverse as Prohibition."

Although the Economist’s occasional generalizations and moralizing may not jive with the progressive drug reformers, the Economist admits that "moral outrage has turned out to be a poor basis for policy." Much of its libertarian analysis overlaps with the progressive, and brings its own strengths. By weighing the damage done by anti-drug policy with the damage done by drugs themselves, the Economist clearly illustrates the fallacy of current draconian legislation that criminalizes activities equivalent to smoking tobacco or being an alcoholic.

The Economist, true to its name, also analyzes the drug trade as an industry, arguing that citizens would be better protected through legalization, regulation, and taxation. The cost to society of decriminalization is much lower than prohibition.

This survey is another tool in the drug reform arsenal.


Survey : Illegal Drugs
The Economist
July 26th, 2001


Stumbling in the Dark
This introduction describes the illegal drug trade and the efforts to suppress it, particularly in the United States. As the U.S. has one of the highest per capita rate of drug use in the world, and the largest budget to combat illegal drugs, it is the most striking illustration of failed Drug War policy.

How Did We Get Here?
The same drugs that are now demonized and outlawed were once used as medicines, and even for recreational purposes as with Coca-Cola, which used cocaine in its soda. Even when alcohol was illegal, drugs were still widely available. Early efforts at drug prohibition grew out of racist fears of Chinese opium importers and "drug-crazed" blacks, as well as an effort to neutralize hemp’s competition with newly developed synthetic fibers.

Big Business
The profits garnered by the drug trade are astronomical and mostly end up in the pockets of the distributors, rather than the growers. The industry employs large numbers of people, especially at the level of street distribution, providing lucrative employment at three to four times the U.S. minimum wage. The drawback for dealers on the street is the danger of getting killed, which is about 7 percent.

Choose Your Poison
Most drug users are located in developing countries, and by far the most commonly used drug is marijuana. The majority of drugs do not appear to be physically addictive, with the exception of tobacco. This article also debunks the gateway theory: the idea that early marijuana use leads to heavier drugs.

The Harm Done
Drug use can cause illness, death, and destroy the lives of both users and their families, but the damage must be kept in perspective. Very few people die every year from drug overdoses alone, and some drugs have proven medical benefits as pain-killers and appetite stimulants. As for the social harm caused by crime and violence, this is exacerbated by criminalization.

Stopping It
Efforts to stem the supply and trafficking of drugs serve only to corrupt law enforcement and rearrange, not reduce, drug producers and distributors. The sheer profitability of the drug industry ensures that it will continue, and all efforts at eradication and control can be financially corrupted.

Collateral Damage
"The most conspicuous victim of the war on drugs has been justice," begins this article. It goes on to mourn the many civil liberties that have been sacrificed to the anti-drug cause. Particularly impacted are African Americans and Latinos, as well as young people, who are disproportionately arrested and sentenced under harsh mandatory minimum laws.

Better Ways
Rather than criminalizing drugs, why not move to minimize the negative impacts of drug use through treatment and education? The Economist advocates "harm reduction," focusing on the Dutch heroin maintenance programs that allow addicts to lead functional lives and market separation between "hard" and "soft" drugs.

Set It Free
"The argument for legalization is difficult, but the case against is worse." Although legalization may increase the number of users by removing the stigma, and may lead to commercialization (Phillip Morris pushing pot), it would ultimately improve the lives of a majority of people. It would mean a vast reduction in the number of arrests and incarcerations. Says the Economist: "Governments allow their citizens the freedom to do many potentially self-destructive things: to go bungee-jumping, to ride motorcycles, to own guns, to drink alcohol and to smoke cigarettes. Some of these are far more dangerous than drug-taking. John Stuart Mill was right. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. Trade in drugs may be immoral or irresponsible, but it should no longer be illegal."

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