Thinking about Drug Legalization

May 25, 1989 • Policy Analysis No. 121
By James Ostrowski

Prohibition is an awful flop.
We like it.
It can’t stop what it’s meant to stop.
We like it.
It’s left a trail of graft and slime,
It don’t prohibit worth a dime,
It’s filled our land with vice and crime.
Nevertheless, we’re for it.

– Franklin P. Adams (1931)

On Thursday, March 17, 1988, at 10:45 p.m., in the Bronx, Vernia Brown was killed by stray bullets fired in a dispute over illegal drugs.[1] The 19‐​year‐​old mother of one was not involved in the dispute, yet her death was a direct consequence of the “war on drugs.”

By now, there can be little doubt that most, if not all, “drug‐​related murders” are the result of drug prohibition. The same type of violence came with the Eighteenth Amendment’s ban of alcohol in 1920. The murder rate rose with the start of Prohibition, remained high during Prohibition, and then declined for 11 consecutive years when Prohibition ended.[2] The rate of assaults with a firearm rose with Prohibition and declined for 10 consecutive years after Prohibition. In the last year of Prohibition–1933–there were 12,124 homicides and 7,863 assaults with firearms; by 1941 these figures had declined to 8,048 and 4,525, respectively.[3] (See Figure 1.)

Vernia Brown died because of the policy of drug prohibition.[4] If, then, her death is a “cost” of that policy, what did the “expenditure” of her life “buy”? What benefits has society derived from the policy of prohibition that led to her death? To find the answer, I turned to the experts and to the supporters of drug prohibition.

In 1988, I wrote to Vice President George Bush, then head of the South Florida Drug Task Force; to Education Secretary William Bennett; to Assistant Secretary of State for Drug Policy Ann Wrobleski; to White House drug policy adviser Dr. Donald I. McDonald; and to the public information directors of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, General Accounting Office, National Institute of Justice, and National Institute on Drug Abuse. None of these officials was able to cite any study that demonstrated the beneficial effects of drug prohibition when weighed against its costs.[5] The leaders of the war on drugs are apparently unable to defend on rational cost‐​benefit grounds their 70‐​year‐​old policy, which costs nearly $10 billion per year (out of pocket), imprisons 75,000 Americans, and fills our cities with violent crime. It would seem that Vernia Brown and many others like her have died for nothing.

Some supporters of drug prohibition claim that its benefits are undeniable and self‐​evident. Their main assumption is that without prohibition drug use would skyrocket, with disastrous results. But there is little evidence for this commonly held belief. In fact, in the few cases where empirical evidence does exist it lends little support to the prediction of soaring drug use. For example, in two places in the Western world where use of small amounts of marijuana is legal–the Netherlands and Alaska–the rate of marijuana consumption is arguably lower than in the continental United States, where marijuana is banned. In 1982, 6.3 percent of American high school seniors smoked marijuana daily, but only 4 percent did so in Alaska. In 1985, 5.5 percent of American high school seniors used marijuana daily, but in the Netherlands the rate was only 0.5 percent.[6] These are hardly controlled comparisons–no such comparisons exist–but the numbers that are available do not bear out the drastic scenario portrayed by supporters of continued prohibition.

Finally, there is at least some evidence that the “forbidden fruit” aspect of prohibition may lead to increased use of or experimentation with drugs, particularly among the young. This phenomenon apparently occurred with marijuana, LSD, toluene‐​based glue, and other drugs.[7] The case for legalization does not rely on this argument, but those who believe prohibition needs no defense cannot simply dismiss it.

Media Name: pa121.jpg

Download the Policy Analysis

About the Author
James Ostrowski, an associate policy analyst of the Cato Institute, was vice chairman of the New York County Lawyers Association Committee on Law Reform.