There's a movement afoot to legalize many types of currently illegal drugs (particularly marijuana) on civil liberty grounds, and I'm generally sympathetic, even though I have never used any illegal drugs and I rarely drink alcohol. The basic idea behind the movement is that if someone wants to use drugs, even dangerous ones, it's no business of government as long as no one else is hurt. It is also argued that if drugs are legalized then the black market and all the crime associated with it will evaporate because the premium prices will disappear when large, legal, corporations take over production and distribution.

Both of these justifications are plausible. I don't like the government involved in peoples' personal lives, and I do think legalization would quickly undermine the vast drug cartels that smuggle illicit substances into our country and wreak havoc all around the world. But. I don't think that anyone has a clear and complete understanding of how legalization would affect our society and economy.

Civil libertarians may argue that it's irrelevant, but consider what demographics would be most likely to increase consumption of currently illegal drugs. Who would these newly-formed drug companies target with their product? Alcohol has a rather high penetration rate and is often abused... what effect would wide-spread "moderate" LSD or cocaine use have on society? (Can such drugs even be used in "moderation"? Doubtful.)

It may be argued that even if drug use is legalized it will not become wide-spread, but economic theory does not support that belief. Right now illegal drugs are expensive and difficult to acquire, but if they are legalized the price will drop by a factor of 10 or more and they will be available at every corner store. It's absurd to think that this change in market conditions will have no effect on consumption. Will the productivity lost by increased hard drug use be offset by the money saved in law enforcement and gained through taxation? I'm skeptical. And do we really want our government raising money by taxing addictive substances, and thereby gaining an incentive to get more people hooked? (This is why I'm against tobacco taxes and why I think the tobacco industry scored a huge win with the structure of its lawsuit settlements with the states.)

As with all things, a balance needs to be found that maximizes liberty and minimizes the cost of that libery to society. Perhaps alcohol should be legal and LSD should not, perhaps marijuana should or should not be. I don't think the answer is as clear as the legalization-ists would have us believe, but I also think that the status quo needs some serious reconsideration.



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