I still don't understand why people take drugs. Can't they just pour themselves a nice shot of bourbon? On the other hand, as Gary S. Becker and Kevin M. Murphy argue, in a lucid piece for the Wall Street Journal's Review section, prison populations have quintupled since 1980, in large degree thanks to laws meant to decrease drug usage by prohibiting it; 50,000 Mexicans may have died since 2006 in their country's war against traffickers, and addiction has probably increased.
Becker, a Nobel laureate in economics, and Murphy, a University of Chicago colleague, argue for putting decriminalization of drugs on the table for national consideration. The federal war on drugs, which commenced in 1971, was supposed to discourage use by punishing the sale and consumption of drugs. It hasn't worked quite that way.
"[T]he harder governments push the fight," the two argue, "the higher drug prices become to compensate the greater risks. That leads to larger profits for traffickers who avoid being punished." It can likewise lead "dealers to respond with higher levels of violence and corruption." In the meantime, Becker and Murphy point out, various states have decriminalized marijuana use or softened enforcement of existing prohibitions. Barely two months ago, voters in Colorado and Washington made their own jurisdictions hospitable to the friendly consumption of a joint.
The two economists say full decriminalization of drugs would, among other things, "lower drug prices, reduce the role of criminals in producing and selling drugs, improve many inner-city neighborhoods, [and] encourage more minority students in the U.S. to finish high school." To the Journal's question, "Have we lost the war on drugs?" 89.8 percent of readers replied, "Yes."
One isn't deeply surprised to hear it. National tides seem presently to be running in favor of abortion and gay marriage -- two more elements of the culture wars that began, contemporaneously, with the battle for the right to puff pot. Swimming against powerful tides is no politician's idea of a participatory sport. Conceivably, armed with practical (i.e., $$$$$$) reasons for decriminalizing drugs, advocates of such a policy course will prevail. We can then sit around wondering what all the fuss was about.