The worst argument for NOT legalizing (updated)

bullet image The Brutal Logic of a Drug Warrior: Put ‘Em All in Cages

In The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf does a wonderful job of dismantling David P. Goldman’s column in the Asia Times.

Goldman’s notions are truly pathetic, involving solving Mexico’s problems by waging war against the poor and locking them all up, and Conor handily smacks him down.

But there’s one area in particular I wanted to highlight, because we hear this argument from prohibitionists so often.

Here’s a rebuttal [to legalization] that the author apparently finds persuasive. “Libertarians used to argue that arresting criminals was futile as long as crime paid, because there always would be someone willing to take the job; the only remedy, they added, was to legalize drugs, bring down the price and eliminate the economic incentive,” he writes. “The trouble is that the Mexican gangs do not restrict their predations to drugs, as the frightful incidence of kidnapping makes clear.” He is apparently blind to the fact that those gangs would be far less powerful, far less formidable to stop from kidnapping people, if they weren’t enriched with obscene amounts of wealth the likes of which they could only plausibly obtain from one source that can in fact be eliminated: drug profits. Prohibition era gangs committed crimes besides producing and selling alcohol. Do you know what made them less powerful? Or why they’ve long since ceased to terrorize law-abiding Americans?

But this is the illogic of a drug warrior. His solution requires locking up vast swaths of a country’s population in cages while the folks that remain free are caught in a hopeless attempt to eliminate a black market. He nevertheless points at the libertarian solution and says, as if its a commensurate complaint, “Even if you legalize drugs there will still be other crime in Mexico.”

Yet his side is still driving policy in the United States.

Unfortunately, true.

It drives me crazy when I hear that argument.

Now I bring in about $100 a month from advertising and donations to this blog, enough to cover hosting costs. And I have a full-time job that pays my rent, food, and everything else. Imagine someone saying “It wouldn’t matter if Pete lost his job. He’s got a blog.”

If you eliminate the black market drug profits for the traffickers, then they don’t have the money to hire as many soldiers, which are used to intimidate people when they commit other crimes. They also don’t have the money to bribe police, judges, and government officials to look the other way when these crimes are committed.

Sure, when drugs are legalized these really bad people will try to operate in other areas, but they’ll have lost the bulk of their funding and be easier to stop. And this time when we catch or kill one, there will no longer be the same incentive for someone else to take their place.

Update: It still amazes me how this argument refuses to die. I think part of it is that some people look at the problem and correctly recognize that if we legalized all drugs today, the bad people in Mexico who are decapitating rivals wouldn’t suddenly disappear in a puff of smoke like some suddenly irrelevant cartoon creature. Of course not – we never said that they would.

They’ll try to do other things that they already do (kidnapping, etc.), but they’ll no longer be drug trafficking organizations. They’ll merely be murderous criminals. And when they are caught or killed, there will be nobody to take their place, because there will no longer be billions of dollars — close to the entire national budget — coming in to their organizations from drug trafficking.

There isn’t enough money in Mexico to replace the money they get from drugs.

Is getting rid of the cartels the ONLY reason to legalize? Of course not. It’s just one of many very good reasons.

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43 Responses to The worst argument for NOT legalizing (updated)

  1. Emma says:

    Fantastic to see the prohibitionists on the defensive. Eventually, everyone will be embarrassed to be associated with prohibition.

    Even Mark Kleiman is coming around on a regulated market for cannabis after Pat Robertson endorsed the idea (see Kleiman’s samefacts blog).

    • Matthew Meyer says:

      Is this different than the “Australian model” that Kleiman has supported for years? (And come on, “even Mark Kleiman”?)

  2. Duncan20903 says:


    It would seem to me that what happened in Canada during the days of the 18th Amendment should be considered. People blame the violence in Mexico on US laws, but the fact of the matter is that Canada did not suffer the same violence despite the fact that they were major importers of illegal drinking alcohol in that day.

    The Mexicans are responsible for their own idiotic laws. They might figure out how the Bronfman family made so much money running Seagrams in that day.

  3. claygooding says:

    It ain’t street dealers buying boatloads of cocaine and the statistics for busting the rich kingpins in the US suck.

    How long since a big heroin dealer or cocaine distributor was brought down?

    All we get are accidental encounters with large shipments supported by local police arresting 99% of the drug arrests,,a lot of them through profiling.

    This smells of the very same corruption in the Mexican government.

  4. kaptinemo says:

    The problem with authoritarians is that their egos cannot allow for fallibility. Their entire reason to live is tied up with their self-image of always being right…no matter how terribly wrong they are. Which is why they behave the way they do when the evidence that they are wrong becomes so overwhelming: doubling down, retrenching and hoping they can out-shout and intimidate their critics.

    Sort of the way Franklin P. Jones described: “A fanatic is one who sticks to his guns whether they’re loaded or not.

    • primus says:

      Agreed. Notice how Pat Robertson, when he said that he supports decrim, said how he wanted to be on the right side of this? I took note of the wording, because it says a lot about motivation; nobody wants to look like a fool, so when it looks like they are on the wrong side of something, it gets mighty uncomfortable for the authoritarians. Some, like Robertson will change sides, and forever after be accused of ‘flip flopping’ by the others, who do not see how foolish they are. Even after prohibition ends there will be those who won’t change their minds. “My mind’s made up, quit trying to confuse me with those pesky facts.” LOL

  5. Jose says:

    My logic on the “employment” matter may be naive but I feel it is a safe assumption. It is likely easy to get a paisano to sell or traffic drugs, especially one that is generally considered harmless. However, getting someone to step up and take over kidnapping, torture, decapitations etc. takes a certain mindset that may be harder to come by and become a diminishing candidate pool.

    • Francis says:

      That’s a good point, but keep in mind there are going to be a lot of prohibitionists looking for work following legalization…

      • kaptinemo says:

        After having been on the receiving end of their ‘tender mercies’, reduced to penury and worked in low-paying, dangerous jobs for years afterward thanks to their precious DrugWar, I have less than zero sympathies for their coming plight. Let them find out what it’s like to start all over again, in middle age, while facing age discrimination.

        It’s economically worse out there now than when they destroyed me; I am patiently waiting for their karma to catch up to them. May its’ fangs and claws tear deeply…

        • Peter says:

          Francis and Nemo… I would imagine that their experience in the kidnapping and torture fields should stand them in good stead with the cartels, and who knows, some may even have done the odd decapitation

      • claygooding says:

        I don’t wish the prohibs any other punishment than that they keep to their guns and die never trying the lady.

  6. Steve says:

    I think the U.S. is starting to appear desperate in their efforts to keep ahold of the Drug War teat…sadly for them, not only has the public at large become aware of this farce, but it seems that the media is now making a conscious decision to side with anti-prohibitionists as well…I never thought this would happen, but in this week’s issue of TIME, Fareed Zakharia actually has an article (full page no less) discussing our prison population and its staggering growth rate over the last 30 years and attribute’s it appropriately to nothing more than the good ole’ Drug War. Our gov’t can’t stomach the fact that we are tired of this and is doing everything it can to not only protect the insane profits they reap BUT also those all important JOBS folks, thats right JOBS. Think of the unemployment number that would be created if all those folks who serve one purpose were suddenly out of work – oh the calamity!

  7. Dante says:

    Drug warriors are “Authoritarians”, primarily.

    Authoritarians want authority-based solutions to everything. There appears to be a burning need to punish, to violently harm anyone who they feel is deserving, and that need is almost a fetish.

    Anything else, no matter how logical or effective, is “surrender”.

    Authoritarians never “surrender”. That’s not part of their “slay the evil-doers and become a hero” fetish.

    (edit-Cap’n beat me to it)

  8. Duncan20903 says:

    I can’t believe we haven’t talked about Trayvon yet.

    • claygooding says:

      I have been observing,,too many conflicting stories,,witness reports T attacked Z,,,it all hinges on who resorted to violence first,,although Z had no business harassing T over his location his interest in T was within his parameter,he reported T to local authorities but then disregarded advice not to follow,,so many wrong actions from everyone involved.

      • Duncan20903 says:

        I think we can confidently state that cannabis had nothing to do with his death.

      • darkcycle says:

        No, Clay. It does NOT hinge on who attacked who. Zimmerman pursued Treyvon after being told not to by police dispatch. T. was NOT committing a crime. T. was not threatening Z. Treyvon was outweighed by the larger Z. by about 80 lbs. T. was not armed, Z. was. Treyvon was a MINOR (when an unarmed minor who weighs 135lbs is a threat to an armed adult of 200lbs I’ll just cash in any sense of proportion or balance I may have ever had).
        The stand your ground law should be renamed…it’s really a chase ’em down and kill ’em law.

        • Francis says:

          I’m not convinced the “stand your ground” law is a good idea, but I’m also not convinced that it’s relevant here at least according to this account (and I admittedly haven’t followed this case very closely):

          Even if John’s account is accurate, it does not necessarily mean Zimmerman was justified in shooting Martin. But it suggests that the right to “stand your ground” protected by Florida’s much-maligned self-defense law, which critics have blamed for the Sanford Police Department’s decision not to arrest Zimmerman, may be irrelevant in this case. If Martin tackled Zimmerman, who as a result feared serious injury or death (perhaps because he believed Martin was about to grab his gun), the “duty to retreat” that was eliminated by Florida’s law would not apply because Zimmerman would not have had an opportunity to escape. In fact, Zimmerman’s lawyer says he does not plan to invoke the “stand your ground” principle.

          And I’d also note this observation:

          The Times also reports that the law “is increasingly used by gang members fighting gang members, drug dealers battling drug dealers and people involved in road rage encounters.” Why should any of those situations preclude a legitimate self-defense claim? Drug dealers do get attacked, after all, and their line of work should not mean they have no right to resist (leaving aside the point that such violence is an utterly predictable feature of the black market created by prohibition). Even if there were a prima facie case that the “stand your ground” principle helps guilty people more often than innocent ones, that would not be the end of the matter. Our system of justice deliberately makes it hard to convict people, with the understanding that some guilty people will therefore go free.

        • darkcycle says:

          I believe an armed person, by virtue of having lethal force at his or her disposal, has a prima facie duty to retreat. The duty to retreat was established to prevent just this sort of thing. Stand your ground is legalized manslaughter. Whether it is a part of this defense or not.

        • Francis says:

          I tend to agree that a person should retreat if they can before resorting to lethal force in self-defense. But I’m also sympathetic to the line that “detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife.” And let’s keep in mind that the “stand your ground” defense is only implicated when the person using lethal force has a reasonable belief that it’s necessary (absent retreat considerations) to prevent imminent death or serious bodily harm. Also the duty to retreat still applies if you were the initial aggressor. I’m not really interested in defending the law, but I don’t like to see tragedies used to argue for law changes when there’s no evidence that the proposed change would have prevented the tragedy. And I don’t think calling “stand your ground” a “chase ’em down and kill ’em” law is the fairest characterization of what the law actually says. That’s all.

        • darkcycle says:

          I wasn’t characterizing what the law SAYS, I was characterizing how it is being USED. There are two separate cases in Fla. where people have chased another person down, killed them, then invoked “stand your ground”. I’ll see if I can find that other case, but I’m crazy busy right now, I’ve kinda been out of the loop now for a week or so.

  9. Servetus says:

    The brutal stupidity of burning money:

    One can only guess what could have been achieved had the $450,000 donated to the ‘rooftop pastor’ been spent on something useful, like job creation, instead of demolishing a motel.

    Now Chicago area drug users will need to find a new motel to check into. They will find one, of course, as drug users are consistently more clever and adaptable than prohibitionists. There are always more motels, just as there are always more drug users, and more drug merchants.

  10. TrebleBass says:

    The whole argument that cartels would just shift to other enterprises has been repeated so many times by the prohibitionists that it almost starts to sound plausible. If someone repeats the same thing over and over it starts to sound like it’s true. When i originally heard the argument a few years ago, i thought it was pretty stupid. It is still pretty stupid, but the prohibitionists have repeated it so many times i swear they and some listeners of the debate must be sure that cartels are almost a kidnap and sell cds organization that sells some drugs on the side, the least of which is marijuana. For crying out loud, any other business, first of all, is not a consensual business. Those other crimes can be targeted because any victim will notify police, and because large portions of the population cannot become part of those businesses (most people have moral objections to kidnapping and the sort, plus, there’s only so many people you can kidnap before it blows up in your face). Only consensual crimes can become giant businesses. In fact, the only way a kidnapper can become so powerful so as to not have it blow up in his face is if he’s got gigantic amounts of money and power from some other enterprise. You can’t be a kidnapping cartel because they’ll kill you and/or arrest you if you try. As to the human trafficking and prostitution, those things are dealt with through immigration policies and through legalizing prostitution. Plus, those things are probably also already at their peak. And in the case of slavery that’s a nonconsensual crime. If the police focuses on it they can tackle it just like any other nonconsensual crime. But even if those things are at their peak, i doubt they pull in anywhere near the same amount of money as drug trafficking. And if you take drug trafficking out of the way, you can focus your efforts and resources on nonconsensual crimes.

    And btw, marijuana is a huge part of their business. You don’t have to legalize all drugs to be able to deal a giant blow to the cartels.

    • Peter says:

      “Only consensual crimes can become giant businesses.”

      Amen to that.

    • Duncan20903 says:


      Is it:
      The drug users of America are directly responsible for the violence engaged in by the drug cartels because they send them their money.

      or is it:

      It wouldn’t matter if the drug cartels didn’t make a penny from drugs, they’d be just as violent doing different crimes.

      Prohibitionists aren’t bothered in the least by making diametrically opposed claims.

  11. strayan says:

    If there’s better money in other crime what’s stopping the cartels from quitting the drug trade right now?

    We all know what:

    1. There is a bigger demand for drugs

    2. You rarely get caught

    3. No one is going to report a drug deal that involves themself (with a few exceptions)

    4. Drugs are easier to conceal than people (up your ass)

    5. The hostages’ family doesn’t always pay. The police reward my suddenly look more appealing to your partners in crime than the ransom

    6. See my comment here:

    • Duncan20903 says:


      I must admit there have been a few people in my circle in the past that had I gotten a call from kidnappers saying, “pay a ransom or we kill him” it would have found me saying, “well thanks, don’t make it quick, eh? You know I might consider paying a few hundred for the video…”

  12. Cold Blooded says:

    Drugs are the preferred criminal activity for a reason. Selling kilos of drugs is far more straightforward than running a ring of hookers or smuggling immigrants. Crimes are not all equally easy or equally profitable; don’t let the other side get away with saying otherwise.

  13. Francis says:

    There were some pretty good comments on this topic on a recent thread.

  14. Francis says:

    Also, “the worst arguments for NOT legalizing”? Talk about some stiff competition! Here are my three nominees:

    1) “Drugs are bad, m’kay.”
    2) “Think of teh CHILDREN!!!1!”
    3) “Because Jesus.”

    And by the way, those aren’t short-hand for the arguments. They’re essentially the “arguments” themselves as presented by most know-nothings.

    • Chris says:

      You forgot that we can’t legalize drugs because drugs are illegal (and you know everything that is illegal is illegal for a good reason!).

  15. OhutumValik says:

    I’m confused.

    Mike Riggs claims in Reason Magazine that “Legalizing Marijuana Will End Cartel Violence in Northern Mexico” is the third wrongest argument for ending the war on cannabis (the other two being “Marijuana Should Be Taxed and Regulated Because It Is America’s Largest Cash Crop” and “Marijuana Should Be Legal Because It’s Medicine”).

    Six years and 50,000 drug-war deaths later, the argument that repealing marijuana prohibition could stem the violence in Mexico and along the U.S. border is ubiquitous. The claim was a major selling point for Proposition 19 in California, which would have legalized marijuana and subjected its sale to taxation and regulation, and has been made repeatedly by drug reform advocates in the two years since.

    “We have created an illegal marketplace with such mind-boggling profits that no enforcement measures will ever overcome the motivation, resources and determination of the cartels,” Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson wrote in a 2011 op-ed for The Washington Times. Legalizing pot, he added, would deny the cartels “their largest profit center and dramatically reduce not only the role of the United States in their business plans, but also the motivation for waging war along our southern border.”

    But there are objections to that claim. In October 2010, the RAND Corporation released a study saying that Mexican cartels derived only 16 percent of their revenue from marijuana. (As pointed out by NORML, that number conflicted with the ONDCP’s estimate that 61 percent of cartel revenue comes from marijuana.)

    In June 2011, Mexico analyst Sylvia Longmire argued that cartels have diversified to the point that legalizing marijuana might dent their war chests, but it won’t stop them; they’d still make money stealing oil from pipelines, pirating and selling contraband intellectual property, extorting small businesses, bribing politicians, ransoming kidnap victims, manufacturing and moving harder drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and meth, and trafficking undocumented immigrants and sex workers.

    In 2011, David Borden, executive director of, emailed me with objections to Longmire’s argument: “Some of the other criminal enterprises that cartels are involved in (enterprises they’ve been able to enter because of having drug cash and organizations built by drug cash) are less straightforwardly tied to demand, such as kidnapping for ransom, but they have their limits—for all we know they are already doing as much of those things as they think could be sustained, and the more profit they continue to make from drugs, the more money they are going to invest in all kinds of enterprises, both illicit and licit.”

    “Will the cartels vanish from the face of the earth because of marijuana legalization?” Borden continued. “Probably not. Would even full legalization of all drugs accomplish that? Unclear.”

    That lack of clarity is exactly why marijuana reformers should be careful when promising what legalizing pot can and can’t do for Mexico. The war on drugs has weakened the country’s political institutions, corrupted its military and police forces, and devastated its economy. While pot legalization in the U.S. would allow users to divest from the cartels’ brutality, pitching marijuana legalization as anything other than a baby step toward peace and stability in Mexico puts drug reformers on tenuous grounds.

    This all seems quite reasonable, too, and Steve Rolles of Transform UK calls it “welcome realism”… Then again, one really can’t hide kidnappees or immigrants (or stolen oil, for that matter) in one’s rectum with any degree of long-term success.

    • claygooding says:

      Both the ONDCP and the FBI testified before congress that the cartels profits from marijuana were at 60% last July,,then Prop 19 started it’s campaign of cutting the cartels cash flow,,,then Rand,a non-profit research group whose CEO is also a board member of a pharmaceutical company,,put it’s bogus propaganda out to take the wind out of Prop 19’s claims.

      Rand took the profits from 40 billion a year down to 2 billion,,,,a mathematical impossibility with the tonnage of marijuana that crosses the border.

      • OhutumValik says:

        If my memory serves me right, the same research group was responsible for a debunking of the gateway theory, as well as for the “less pot dispensaries, more crime in LA” study and several studies lauding the success of the Portugal drug reform. I’m not going to go into their climate denialism or ties to Koch Industries here; all I’m saying is that it seems to me we should take everything by RAND researchers with a pinch of some condiment or other. Thus far it seems that the antiprohibicionistas (yeah, including myself) tend to take the RAND papers that confirm their beliefs at face value, while dismissing the rest.

      • OhutumValik says:

        Sorry, I seem to have mixed up Cato institute and RAND corp for some reason.

  16. Windy says:

    The BEST reason to re-legalize is the unalienable Right to “Liberty”, to self-ownership and self-determination.

    What adult has the right or the legitimate Constitutional authority to tell another adult “You may not ingest/use that substance.”?

    Answer: “No one has that right or legitimate authority!”

  17. David Hart says:

    Or, as I like to put it, there is no market demand for being mugged or murdered.

  18. escapegoat says:

    “The trouble is that the Mexican gangs do not restrict their predations to drugs, as the frightful incidence of kidnapping makes clear.”

    he seems to be saying that winning the drug war will bring an end to kidnapping…

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