Will: Reviewing America’s drug problem

By George Will, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

Published:

 
photoGeorge F. Will

The human nervous system interacts in pleasing and addictive ways with certain molecules derived from some plants, which is why humans may have developed beer before they developed bread. Psychoactive -- consciousness-altering -- and addictive drugs are natural, a fact that should immunize policymakers against extravagant hopes as they cope with America’s drug problem, which is convulsing some nations to our south.

The costs -- human, financial and social -- of combating (most) drugs are prompting calls for decriminalization or legalization. America should, however, learn from the psychoactive drug used by a majority of American adults -- alcohol.

Drinking alcohol had been a widely exercised private right for millennia when America tried to prohibit it. As a public health measure, Prohibition “worked”: Alcohol-related illnesses declined dramatically. As the monetary cost of drinking tripled, deaths from cirrhosis of the liver declined by a third. This improvement was, however, paid for in the coin of rampant criminality and disrespect for law.

Another legal drug, nicotine, kills more people than do alcohol and all illegal drugs -- combined. For decades, government has aggressively publicized the health risks of smoking and made it unfashionable, stigmatized, expensive and inconvenient. Yet 20 percent of every rising American generation becomes addicted to nicotine.

Don’t experiment with life

So, suppose cocaine or heroin were legalized and marketed as cigarettes and alcohol are. And suppose the level of addiction were to replicate the 7 percent of adults suffering from alcohol abuse or dependency. That would be a public health disaster. As the late James Q. Wilson said, nicotine shortens life, cocaine debases it.

Still, because the costs of prohibition -- interdiction, mass incarceration, etc. -- are staggeringly high, some people say, “Let’s just try legalization for a while.” Society is not, however, like a controlled laboratory; in society, experiments that produce disappointing or unexpected results cannot be tidily reversed.

Legalized marijuana could be produced for much less than a tenth of its current price as an illegal commodity. Legalization of cocaine and heroin would cut their prices, too; they would sell for a tiny percentage of their current prices. And using high excise taxes to maintain cocaine and heroin prices at current levels would produce widespread tax evasion -- and an illegal market.

Furthermore, legalization would mean drugs of reliable quality would be conveniently available from clean stores for customers not risking the stigma of breaking the law in furtive transactions with unsavory people. So there is no reason to think today’s levels of addiction are anywhere near the levels that would be reached under legalization.

America spends 20 times more on drug control than all the world’s poppy and coca growers earn. A subsequent column will suggest a more economic approach to the “natural” problem of drugs.

George F. Will is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Email: georgewill@washpost.com.