In August 1999, federal agents announced that they had broken up one of America’s twenty largest drug rings in a yearlong operation dubbed “Operation Southwest Express.” In all, agents indicted 100 suspects, arrested 77, and seized 5,622 pounds of cocaine, 2 tons of marijuana, $1 million in cash, 2 Ferraris, a Land Rover, and 7 weapons. In the process, they disrupted a network of smugglers and dealers that were bringing drugs into the country from Mexico through El Paso and supplying several major cities in the eastern and Midwestern United States, including Chicago, New York, and Boston.
While officials consider drug busts like Operation Southwest Express crucial to America’s antidrug efforts, critics of the nation’s drug war contend that breaking up one drug ring will have virtually no impact on the availability of drugs. Due to the great demand for illegal drugs in America—and the astronomical profits to be made by supplying them—another drug operation will quickly replace every one dismantled by the federal government. As David D. Boaz, vice president of the Cato Institute, states, “As long as Americans want to use drugs, and are willing to defy the law and pay high prices to do so, drug busts are futile. Other profit-seeking smugglers and dealers will always be ready to step in and take the place of those arrested.”
The debate over law-enforcement tactics like Operation Southwest Express reflects the larger debate over drug legalization. Critics of the war on drugs, such as Boaz, contend that drug prohibition is a futile, costly effort that has failed to reduce drug use. They point out that the drug war costs the federal government more than $16 billion a year and that billions more are spent at the state and local levels. As a result of this massive antidrug campaign, four hundred thousand Americans are imprisoned for drug law violations. Sixty percent of federal prisoners and 25 percent of state and local inmates are held on drug charges—mostly for the relatively minor offenses of possession or low-level dealing to fund their personal use.
Despite this enormous effort, drug war opponents argue, drugs remain readily available and their use is increasing. In 1998, the Monitoring the Future Survey conducted by the University of Michigan reported that 90.4 percent of high school seniors say marijuana is “fairly easy” or “very easy” to obtain. The Na- tional Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA), conducted annually by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found that the number of drug users in America has increased from 12 million in 1992 to 13.6 million in 1998. The number of teens reporting drug use within the prior month increased from 5.3 percent in 1992 to 11.4 percent in 1997. Although that number dropped slightly to 9.9 percent in 1998, it still remains well above the 1992 level. Among young adults age eighteen to twenty-four, drug use has risen from 13.3 percent in 1994 to 16.1 percent in 1998. According to opponents of drug prohibition, these numbers are proof that the war on drugs is failing.
Rather than continuing to wage this disastrous war, critics assert, America should legalize drugs. Supporters of legalization contend that easing the nation’s drug laws would have numerous benefits. Perhaps most importantly, they say, it would destroy the black market for drugs and the criminality that surrounds it. If drugs were legal and available in the legitimate marketplace, drug smugglers and their networks of dealers would be put out of business. Drug gangs would no longer engage in violent battles for turf. Inner-city children would no longer be lured into drug-dealing gangs. As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) puts it, drug legalization “would sever the connection between drugs and crime that today blights so many lives and communities.”
Specific proposals for how to implement legalization vary widely. Libertarians advocate eliminating all federal drug laws. Others call for more modest reforms. Some focus exclusively on legalizing marijuana—either for medical purposes or more general use—while others want laws against all drugs relaxed. Some call for outright legalization, whereas others promote decriminalization— keeping laws on the books but reducing them to misdemeanor offences or enforcing them selectively. Some favor legalizing all drugs but under a system of strict governmental regulation. Despite their differences, all advocates of legalization share the conviction that the current prohibitionist drug policies are not working—that they are in fact making drug-related problems worse—and that liberalization of the nation’s drug laws is the only solution.
Opponents of legalization acknowledge that the war on drugs has not succeeded in eliminating drugs from society, but they reject the charge that the effort has been a total failure. While drug use has risen in many categories since the early 1990s, they concede, it is still much lower than it was in the 1970s, prior to the launching of the drug war. In 1979, according to the NHSDA, 14.1 percent of Americans surveyed reported having used an illegal drug during the previous month. That number declined to a low of 5.8 percent in 1992, and although it has since risen to 6.4 percent in 1997, it still remains well below the 1979 level. Drug use among teens shows a similar pattern, dropping from 16.3 percent in 1979 to 5.3 percent in 1992, then rising and falling and eventually hitting 9.9 percent in 1998. Thus, while the drug war has not wiped drugs off the American scene, supporters maintain, it has clearly impacted drug use.
Legalization opponents also reject the argument that liberalizing drug laws would benefit society. They insist that legalizing drugs would inevitably lead to an increase in the use of newly legalized drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and amphetamines. As Barry R. McCaffrey, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, states, “Studies show that the more a product is available and legalized, the greater will be its use.” This increased drug use would cause a variety of problems, including a decrease in workplace productivity and a rise in automobile and on-the-job accidents, health problems, addiction, and crime. Joseph A. Califano Jr., the president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA), explains that although legalization may result in a short-term decrease in drug arrests, the long-term consequences would be devastating: “Any short-term reduction in arrests from repealing drug laws would evaporate quickly as use increased and the criminal conduct—assault, murder, rape, child molestation, and other violence— that drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine spawn exploded.”
Opponents of legalization insist that America must continue its antidrug campaign. Some support efforts to reduce the supply of drugs by disrupting international drug cartels and arresting smugglers and dealers. Others favor reducing the demand for drugs through treatment and education. Still others call for a comprehensive approach combining both supply and demand control elements. Despite these differences, all agree that relaxing the drug laws is not the answer to the nation’s drug problem. As stated by Charles B. Rangel, a Democratic Congressman from New York, “Rather than holding up the white flag and allowing drugs to take over our country, we must continue to focus on drug demand as well as supply if we are to remain a free and productive society.”
The debate over drug legalization, while rooted in real-world concerns over crime, violence, and public health, is also about values. Often a person’s position on the issue is based less on the practicality of maintaining or dismantling the nation’s drug laws than on underlying beliefs about the morality of drug use. This moral dimension of the drug legalization debate adds another layer of complexity to an already difficult issue. Authors throughout Drug Legalization: Current Controversies reflect the full range of opinions on the moral, legal, and public policy aspects of the drug legalization debate as they examine the efficacy of drug prohibition and the advisability of liberalizing the nation’s drug laws.