Legalizing Drugs: The Least Bad Answer

Dan Gillmor is a BoingBoing guest-blogger.

The Obama administration has named the latest of America's "drug czars" — the person who heads the War on (Some) Drugs, a futile, expensive and supremely hypocritical campaign that has caused vastly more damage, in America and around the globe, than the problems it aims to fix. No one denies that drug misuse and addiction are often horrific to individuals and their families; what almost no one wants to ask, however, is whether legalization (or at least decriminalization) would have cumulatively less-bad effects. Perhaps the Warriors against (some) drugs — almost all of whom, no doubt, are users of other drugs — know that the weight of the evidence would not support their side.

Journalists, who are supposed to critically examine orthodoxy, have been especially cowardly. They won't go near the issue except at the edges, notably when voters in state after state approve "medical marijuana" in the clear realization that the drug-banning forces are cruelly indifferent to some kinds of human suffering that often can be alleviated with a well-filled water pipe.

One traditional journalism organization has been consistently asking the right questions, for several decades now. And the current issue of the Economist again treads confidently and logically where its peers won't begin to venture in this editorial, which begins:

A hundred years ago a group of foreign diplomats gathered in Shanghai for the first-ever international effort to ban trade in a narcotic drug. On February 26th 1909 they agreed to set up the International Opium Commission–just a few decades after Britain had fought a war with China to assert its right to peddle the stuff. Many other bans of mood-altering drugs have followed. In 1998 the UN General Assembly committed member countries to achieving a "drug-free world" and to "eliminating or significantly reducing" the production of opium, cocaine and cannabis by 2008.

That is the kind of promise politicians love to make. It assuages the sense of moral panic that has been the handmaiden of prohibition for a century. It is intended to reassure the parents of teenagers across the world. Yet it is a hugely irresponsible promise, because it cannot be fulfilled.

Next week ministers from around the world gather in Vienna to set international drug policy for the next decade. Like first-world-war generals, many will claim that all that is needed is more of the same. In fact the war on drugs has been a disaster, creating failed states in the developing world even as addiction has flourished in the rich world. By any sensible measure, this 100-year struggle has been illiberal, murderous and pointless. That is why The Economist continues to believe that the least bad policy is to legalise drugs.