Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Time To Decriminalize All Drugs? What Would Milton Friedman/John Stuart Mill Advise?

Has "The War On Drugs" as a government policy been effective? There of course endless arguments from all sides but here are some statistics prepared (in 2008) by " On The Issues" 

Drug offenders who serve jail time or traditional probation have a recidivism rate of 45%. Of those who completed ‘drug courts’ monitored treatment programs, the rate was 4% 

60% of federal prison inmates are drug offenders, as are 22% of state prisoners.

20% of all felony convictions are for drug trafficking; another 12% are for drug possession.

About 270,000 people are incarcerated on drug charges, up from 48,000 at the start of the ‘Drug War.’

Direct federal spending on the ‘Drug War’ is currently $17 billion per year.

We now see constant headlines about drug cartels in Mexico slaughtering dozens at a time with estimates of  total murders running in the tens of thousands.Colombia and Afghanistan are destabilized by the illegal drug trade which contributes to untold, unmeasurable death, destruction and ruined families around the world.

There is an alternative to the seemingly futile "War On Drugs" which is to decriminalize, not just "soft drugs" like marijuana, but all drugs.The, immediate effect would be to finish, once and for all the illicit drug trade with its death and destruction. On the economic front it would immediately stop the $17 billion in spending on the drug war and it would dramatically increase state and government revenues through taxes on marijuana.

There would be a further massive economic benefit with the ceasing or lowering of assistance to families devastated by the illness and incapacity of the breadwinner to work through disease incurred by using poor quality or infected drugs.This would possibly be countered to some degree by individuals being incapacitated by commencing legal drug use but I would imagine the numbers would be relatively small and there would be substantial funds available to assist them through health and education programs.

Is the concept of total decriminalization something that  conservatives could not countenance? Rather, does it fit in with the libertarian thinking of Milton Friedman who addressed this situation, ( in his book 'Free To Choose') with reference to alcohol as an example, wherein he canvassed the results of government intervention in free choice during the Prohibition era;

"New prisons and jails had to be built to house the criminals spawned by the converting the drinking of spirits into a crime against the state" Criminals became notorious for their exploits-murder, extortion, hijacking.

"If the government has the responsibility of protecting us from dangerous substances, the logic surely calls for the prohibition of alcohol and tobacco.The reaction of the public to the more extreme attempts to control our behaviour is ample evidence we ant no part of it". Insofar as the government has information about the relative merits or demerits of the items we ingest...let it give us this information. But let it leave us free to choose what chances we want to take with our own lives."

Friedman quotes John Stuart Mill  ( 'On Liberty' 1865 ) as a further exponent of the right of the individual to choose unhindered by the state " The only purpose for which power can be rightly exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant...Over himself, over his own body and mind the individual is sovereign."

One country in Europe-Portugal has decriminalized all drugs-again, there are no doubt endless arguments on all sides about the result but here is an analysis from the Cato Institute as reported in Time Magazine

"The paper, published by Cato in April, found that in the five years after personal possession was decriminalized, illegal drug use among teens in Portugal declined and rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing of dirty needles dropped, while the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled.

"Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success," says Glenn Greenwald, an attorney, author and fluent Portuguese speaker, who conducted the research. "It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does."

Compared to the European Union and the U.S., Portugal's drug use numbers are impressive. Following decriminalization, Portugal had the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the E.U.: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.

The Cato paper reports that between 2001 and 2006 in Portugal, rates of lifetime use of any illegal drug among seventh through ninth graders fell from 14.1% to 10.6%; drug use in older teens also declined. Lifetime heroin use among 16-to-18-year-olds fell from 2.5% to 1.8% (although there was a slight increase in marijuana use in that age group). New HIV infections in drug users fell by 17% between 1999 and 2003, and deaths related to heroin and similar drugs were cut by more than half. In addition, the number of people on methadone and buprenorphine treatment for drug addiction rose to 14,877 from 6,040, after decriminalization, and money saved on enforcement allowed for increased funding of drug-free treatment as well.

These are impressive statistics.We know what the situation is in America under the current legislation. Perhaps it is time for conservatives to consider a new approach. Certainly there is substantial and weighty historical philosophical support for it on the right on a libertarian basis-I would be confident Friedman and Mill would approve examining this question in that light.


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