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April 2004
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Mark Kleiman gets it wrong.

Mark A.R. Kleiman talks about his report (pdf) on drug dealing, drug control, and terrorism.
He has valuable information that is worth reading, but in the end, he completely misses the forest for the trees.
In his post, he states:

One issue I was careful not to address in the report was whether the links between drugs and terror constitute a sufficient reason for making cocaine a licit commodity on more or less the same terms as alcohol.

There is no doubt that cocaine dealing contributes to terrorism in Colombia, and that it does so only because it is illicit. Whatever contribution cocaine dealing makes to the terrorist threat domestically is similarly tied to its illicit status. Therefore, if terrorism were the only thing we cared about, we probably ought to legalize cocaine.

However, since it isn’t — since we also care about the damage long-term, heavy cocaine users do to themselves, and since the number of long-term, heavy cocaine users would likely soar under legalization on the alcohol model — the question becomes whether the gains in terrorism control, added to the gains in reduced domestic crime, law enforcement costs, and incarceration levels, are enough to counterbalance the losses on the addiction side.

My judgment is that a world with legal cocaine would probably be, on balance, somewhat worse than a world without it. But if a convincing case were made that cocaine trafficking was, or could become, a significant source of funding to terrorist groups threatening the United States, that judgment might have to be revised.

There are so many holes in his argument. Let me try to point out some of the biggest.

  1. Mark talks about what long-term heavy cocaine users do to themselves, but there’s no indication about how large a group that is. The government certainly hasn’t been interested in noting that (just like other drugs) some abuse cocaine, but there are many people who use cocaine without problems (other than its illegality or uncertain purity).
  2. There’s no evidence “the number of long-term, heavy cocaine users would likely soar under legalization” as Mark says. This is an improper assumption that is constantly made in the drug war. In other countries that have liberalized or legalized drugs, abuse has generally gone down. It’s also possible (although he avoids discussing it) that casual use would increase without an increase in addictive use (those with addictive personalities have no problem scoring the drug of their choice under prohibition). Without criminal dealers, there’s less push to “enslave” new addicts. With every drug we’ve seen, increases in use and abuse have come from prohibition, not legalization.
  3. Also look at the longer version of the quote: “the number of long-term, heavy cocaine users would likely soar under legalization on the alcohol model.” Even if you don’t agree with my last point and assume this to be true, what requires us to use the alcohol model? Can we not come up with different approaches to different drugs? Must they all be treated the same (either jail, or on the shelves of your convenience store)?
  4. Mark says “the question becomes whether the gains in terrorism control, added to the gains in reduced domestic crime, law enforcement costs, and incarceration levels, are enough to counterbalance the losses on the addiction side.” Even assuming I’m wrong on the addiction side (which I’m not), it seems clear to me that the gains in all those areas above are more than enough to weigh on the side of legalization.
  5. However, if you still can’t see the scales tipping, add the following items into the equation (all of which are part of the prohibition model):
    1. Veronica and Charity Bowers and all the other Drug War Victims. Or do you contend that the death of innocents is OK in the quest to keep people from damaging themselves with drugs? (“Stop hurting yourself or I’ll shoot this innocent bystander.”)
    2. The destruction of Columbia, its land, its people, and its ecology in the name of eradication.
    3. Political unrest in all of Latin America.
    4. Official corruption caused by drug war profits internationally and locally.
    5. Tulia.
    6. The breakup of families, destruction of the inner city, loss of productivity, and increase in welfare that accompany a policy of incarceration.
    7. Racist sentencing policies (crack/powder).
    8. The destruction of civil liberties that have accompanied the drug war.
    9. The increase in government lying to the people in order to justify the drug war.

So on the one side of legalization, you have this huge pile of benefits. On the other side, you have the unsupported assumption that an unknown additional number of people will, because of legalization, choose to harm themselves by improperly using the drug.
Care to revise your judgment, Mark?

Update: Minor edits made for clarity.

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