In a recent leader and briefing, The Economist has reiterated its support for worldwide drug legalization. They argue that, while legalization will certainly bring problems of its own, it is better than another century of failed attempts at prohibition. All told, the case is a very strong one. Legalization could bring with it government control: tax revenues, funds to treat addicts, quality control of products, and public information. Legalization would bring the problem into the open, as well as allow the billions of dollars spent on anti-drug policing and prisons to be put to better uses. In their leader, the magazine makes the surprising suggestion that the participation of legitimate drug companies in the development and improvement of recreational drugs could make them safer.
Legalization could also undercut organized crime, the body that probably benefits most from the current arrangement. That, in turn, would cut down on the crime associated with an illegal trade. Legalization would also suspend the situation in which governments criminalize large segments of their own population. The point is made that Barack Obama could easily have ended up in prison for his youthful experiments with cocaine. Certainly, prison sentences for drug use have the capacity to ruin what would otherwise be excellent lives by stigmatizing those who receive them and exposing them to one of the most intolerable social environments that exist within secure states.
An interesting rebuttal is offered to the idea that looser drug laws turn more people into drug users and addicts. Comparisons of otherwise similar states (harsh Sweden and laxer Norway, for instance) suggest that laws have little impact on the level of drug-taking in society. Under a legal regime, there would also be an opportunity to dispel misinformation about drugs. Certainly, the arguments that politicians have sometimes made about the ‘extreme’ danger of marijuana undermine their credibility when talking about substances that are genuinely far more dangerous.
In short, drug legalization does seem to offer the prospect of weakening the connections between many different harmful phenomenon: from the way in which poppy eradication is undermining peacemaking efforts in Afghanistan to the way in which the poor are more likely to go to jail for drug offences than their richer fellow citizens. While it would be asking too much for governments to take the plunge and legalize everything instantly, it may not be too much to hope for gradual progress in that direction, with a growing emphasis on harm prevention and a more evidence-based approach to policing, lawmaking, and judicial decisions.