Drug War ‘Failure’ Is Not An Argument Against The Drug War
About 3,000 Americans died as a result of drunk driving in the year 2007. Meanwhile, about 16,000 Americans are murdered each year, and 1.3 million American women, and 800,000 American men are assaulted by a significant other annually.
These grim figures have not yet resulted in a chorus of people demanding that drunk driving, murder, and domestic violence be legalized. Indeed, if anything, a spike in the incidence of a certain crime typically leads to demands for a crackdown, and ultimately stiffer penalties for the convicted.
Why, then, do Drug War opponents like to point to the “failure” of criminalized drug use as an argument for legalization?
It’s certainly a favorite argument of Drug War opponents – the claim that the Drug War has “failed,” and that therefore drugs should be legalized. Walter Cronkite, the former president of Brazil, a scribe at commondreams.org, and bassist extraordinaire Sting have all made it in recent years. Here at True/Slant, our own Allison Kilkenny forwarded a similar argument just this week.
Yet the argument makes no logical sense, and is dependent on a flawed understanding of the nature of our legal system.
In the United States, it is understood that prohibitive laws will reduce the incidents of a certain crime, not entirely eradicate it. Only a truly draconian system – a North Korea – aims to completely eliminate any behavior that it criminalizes. Here in the US, we have found a way to strike a balance between liberty and the enforcement of laws. For instance, we will try to catch killers, but we will not subject all American citizens to strip searches to prevent murders from ever happening. We do not consider laws against murder a “failure,” solely because some miscreants continue to kill.
Indeed, when the amount of a certain crime has reached intolerable highs, American law enforcement has traditionally innovated to bring about a reduction. Consider the oft-discussed – but still breathtaking – reduction in New York City’s murder rate. In the 1970s and into the ’80s, America’s largest city suffered from a high violent crime rate. As the criminologist George Kelling remembers it, the city was “racked with crime: murders, burglaries, drug deals, car thefts, thefts from cars.” Strangely, this did not result in New Yorkers demanding that crime, burglary, and car theft be legalized. Rather, New York implemented the innovative “broken windows” theory of policing, and ultimately turned New York into America’s safest big city.
It seems self-evident that the criminalization of hard drugs has at least done something to reduce their use. Does anyone believe that if heroin and cocaine were available at the corner convenience store, no more people would use them than do now? Part of the reason that drinking is so widespread in our society is that booze is readily available in most places. I know this from my own experience – I drink a lot because the opportunities to do so are ample.
But, even if the Drug War is a “failure” in that many people continue to use drugs, this fact does not constitute a logical argument for the legalization of drugs. Drug war opponents need to find another argument. The biggest “failure” is the case that they are trying so desperately to make.