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January 27, 2008 - Lima News (OH)

Column: How Legalization Might Work

By Ronald Lederman, Jr.

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Lima has two recent examples of the War on Drugs' failings.

There's the shooting death of 26-year-old Tarika Wilson as Lima police raided her home to arrest her boyfriend for drug possession. The other is Lima police removing, then losing to the FBI, more than $400,000 from Luther Ricks Sr.'s home after police found a small amount of marijuana.

I posed, via e-mail, questions that a letter writer had about columns calling for an end to the drug war to Tony Ryan, a 36-year veteran of the Denver Police Department. He's also a board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP -, a group of law-enforcement officials who oppose the War on Drugs.

I also spoke to Tim Lynch, director of the Washington, D.C.-based libertarian Cato Institute's Project on Criminal Justice (, in general terms, but also covering some specifics.

Some answers to those letter's questions:

Are we to continue to import cocaine and heroin, or should coca and opium become American agricultural products?

"If coca and opium were American agricultural products, perhaps prescription drug prices would go down," Ryan wrote. "Many legal prescription drugs are derived from these natural substances."

Will the distribution of drugs be purely commercial or will the government regulate it (as with alcohol)?

"As with alcohol -- and also tobacco products -- we envision a similar system of regulation and control," Ryan wrote. "Prohibition of alcohol, you may recall, was also a terribly failed program with the same consequences we now experience with drug prohibition: a national homicide rate that was only as high during alcohol prohibition; a constantly burgeoning prison system (building and operating), which has made our 'land of the free' the home of the most imprisoned populace in the entire world at an average cost of nearly $30,000 per year per inmate, over 40 percent of whom are nonviolent 'drug offenders' and a government bureaucracy (both state and federal) which costs $70 billion or more per year of taxpayers' money with no reduction of the drug problem. Instead, in 38 years of this policy, we have incredibly exacerbated the problem."

"We're making a lot of the same policy mistakes that we made with alcohol prohibition," Lynch said. "The people who wanted to ban alcohol, they were concerned about alcoholism and the rising use of alcohol and alcohol abuse, and they thought by banning it, it would stamp it out. And it didn't. It kind of led to a lot of unfortunate side effects. And I think we're making the same policy mistakes with the drug war."

How will the purity and safety of "recreational" drugs be ensured?

"We already have a government agency which reasonably controls the purity and safety of nearly all drugs (when they are used 'legitimately' as prescription medications)," Ryan wrote. "Interestingly, they are forbidden to even investigate the already-proven medical benefits of the least harmful of illegal drugs, marijuana."

Will legalization extend to drugs whose purpose is to enhance athletic or sexual performance, or to enable one to stay awake for long periods while driving a tractor-trailer?

"Many of these substances are already on the market, being sold over the counter in myriad locations. They are legal, including a wide variety of 'energy' drinks which are sold at any convenience store you care to shop in," Ryan wrote.

These drugs will remain illegal in most countries. How will diversion and theft of American drugs for sale elsewhere be prevented?

"Several countries have already legalized and/or decriminalized many of these illegal drugs," Ryan wrote. "In Europe and the U.K., the talk about drug problems has turned to 'harm reduction' with a heavy emphasis on treating drug abuse -- as with alcohol abuse -- as a social and health problem, not a criminal justice problem."

Will individual users of drugs, including minors, be permitted to procure and use as much as they want? (Any restriction of supply will result in criminal acts to satisfy demand.)

"We envision control and regulation similar to the current policies in place for alcohol and tobacco products," Ryan wrote. "Currently, those allowed to acquire alcohol and tobacco products have no limitations on procurement and use.

"Your point on restrictive policies and their relationship to increased crime is well made and requires no further comment."

As with alcohol, some addicts will become incapable of working, maintaining social relations, etc. What provision will be made for the care of persons disabled by drug use, and what will it cost?

"The same problem exists with the abuse of any substance (alcohol, legal prescription and nonprescription drugs, tobacco and food)," Ryan wrote. "Those people have a variety of options for seeking help and treatment, and are free to do so without fear of being made a criminal offender. ...

"As for the loss of work and social relation abilities, there are numerous organizations (some private, some public) that are willing to help any who are willing to seek such help. The cost of the private programs is minimal (usually funded by our generally caring population of donors) and they are usually more effective than government-run programs, which waste tax money."

"Irresponsible users can be arrested by the police if they get behind the wheel of a car," Lynch said. "An irresponsible user, the same way as an employer is going to fire somebody who shows up drunk or doesn't show up at work at all, can be discharged. Those same types of cultural norms or policies will remain in place with respect to anybody that uses and abuses drugs. People will be held responsible for the consequences of their actions."

If drugs such as cocaine are readily available and accepted by society, should we not expect children to use them, too?

"Substances like heroin, cocaine and marijuana should be treated under our law the same way our law treats beer and whiskey," Lynch said. "That is: Sales should be restricted to adults. It should be illegal for minors to purchase these things, but adults should be free to purchase them and to use them.

"The law should also intervene in situations where consumption would endanger another person. Anybody who gets behind the wheel of a car, they're impaired by drugs or alcohol, I think that's a situation where the police can move in and make an arrest."

"Things like this have always happened, and will continue to happen. You're talking about human nature," Ryan wrote. "Prohibition policies have never been effective in reducing such things; they just make criminals out of the 'violators.' Education, good parenting and other such 'old-fashioned' values are a better way to minimize these problems than our current policy."

Lynch concludes that such questions "take us far afield from the fundamental problems that are created by the drug war. ... Drug are available everywhere, so we're wasting a whole lot of money trying to keep drugs from coming in. It's sending huge sums of money into the criminal underworld. They're getting rich off the trade.

"It's distracting our police resources from fighting other crimes. Every police unit that is spending time right now surveilling a drug-selling operation is a police unit that could be following up leads on violent crimes like rape and murder.

"Then we have these innocent casualties that are innocent bystanders caught in between drug gangs in our cities. And then sometimes we have these police raids that go awry, as happened in Lima.

"These are kind of like the fundamental problems that convinced people that we need to move away from alcohol prohibition. ... As these tragedies pile up, it's happening much more slowly, but I think it's happening as more people are saying the drug war has been given a fair chance to work, but it's not working. We're just getting more problems than solutions from this law-enforcement approach to the drug problem."

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