Because illegal drugs are unregulated, their purity is unknowable -- accounting for thousands of overdose deaths and injuries. Since we maintain drug prohibition to protect people from their own foolish decisions, those overdose deaths must weigh in the balance, too.
Drug prohibition, Milton Friedman pointed out, keeps the price of drugs artificially inflated and amounts to a favor by the government to the drug lords. "The role of the government is to protect the drug cartels," as he provocatively phrased it. Due to our interdiction efforts, Friedman explained, it's enormously costly for a small competitor to attempt to import drugs. This ensures that only the big operators with large fleets of planes, heavy weapons, et cetera can compete.
Prohibition makes it unnecessarily cumbersome for cancer patients and others to receive painkillers and other drugs. A misplaced fear of addiction sometimes leads doctors and other health care providers to underprescribe pain medicine. Meanwhile, any high schooler can score whatever drugs he wants on the way to gym class.
Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Miron estimates that if drugs were legal and taxed, the U.S. and state treasuries would receive $46.7 billion in added revenue, while saving $41.3 billion in expenditures.
What is the downside to legalization? Friedman acknowledged the possibility that legalization might result in some increase in drug addiction. There was, after all, an uptick in alcoholism after Prohibition was repealed. But not all victims are created equal. The child, Friedman notes, who is killed in a drive-by shoot-out between drug gangs is a total victim. The adult who decides to take drugs is not.
Let's stipulate that some unknown number of Americans will become addicts after legalization, who otherwise would not have. We must ask whether the terrible price we are now paying -- in police costs, international drug control efforts, border security, foregone tax revenue, overdose deaths, corruption and violence -- is worth it.