Nixon’s invention of the war on drugs as a political tool was cynical, but every president since — Democrat and Republican alike — has found it equally useful for one reason or another. Meanwhile, the growing cost of the drug war is now impossible to ignore: billions of dollars wasted, bloodshed in Latin America and on the streets of our own cities, and millions of lives destroyed by draconian punishment that doesn’t end at the prison gate; one of every eight black men has been disenfranchised because of a felony conviction.From Harpers via the Sentencing Law and Policy Blog.
As long ago as 1949, H. L. Mencken identified in Americans “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” an astute articulation of our weirdly Puritan need to criminalize people’s inclination to adjust how they feel. The desire for altered states of consciousness creates a market, and in suppressing that market we have created a class of genuine bad guys — pushers, gangbangers, smugglers, killers. Addiction is a hideous condition, but it’s rare. Most of what we hate and fear about drugs — the violence, the overdoses, the criminality — derives from prohibition, not drugs. And there will be no victory in this war either; even the Drug Enforcement Administration concedes that the drugs it fights are becoming cheaper and more easily available.
Now, for the first time, we have an opportunity to change course. Experiments in alternatives to harsh prohibition are already under way both in this country and abroad. Twenty-three states, as well as the District of Columbia, allow medical marijuana, and four — Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska — along with D.C., have legalized pot altogether. Several more states, including Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada, will likely vote in November whether to follow suit.
Portugal has decriminalized not only marijuana but cocaine and heroin, as well as all other drugs. In Vermont, heroin addicts can avoid jail by committing to state-funded treatment. Canada began a pilot program in Vancouver in 2014 to allow doctors to prescribe pharmaceutical-quality heroin to addicts, Switzerland has a similar program, and the Home Affairs Committee of Britain’s House of Commons has recommended that the United Kingdom do likewise. Last July, Chile began a legislative process to legalize both medicinal and recreational marijuana use and allow households to grow as many as six plants. After telling the BBC in December that “if you fight a war for forty years and don’t win, you have to sit down and think about other things to do that might be more effective,” Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos legalized medical marijuana by decree. In November, the Mexican Supreme Court elevated the debate to a new plane by ruling that the prohibition of marijuana consumption violated the Mexican Constitution by interfering with “the personal sphere,” the “right to dignity,” and the right to “personal autonomy.” The Supreme Court of Brazil is considering a similar argument.
Well regulated marijuana legalization in Colorado has been a great success. Empirical evidence from other countries that have taken a public health approach rather than a criminal justice approach to other controlled substances have shown that the benefits of this approach aren't unique to marijuana.
Legalizing vice (including prostitution which no other country in the developed world prohibits as comprehensively as every place in the United States except a few counties in Nevada do), would not by itself empty our prisons from the world record levels of mass incarceration found in the United States. Too many violent crimes drawing very long sentences in the U.S. have nothing to do with the vice trade for that to happen. But, it would make a huge dent in incarceration rates, especially at the federal level.
But, vice is the dominant funding sources for organized crime. Payday lending, title loans and hard money lending, along with myriad forms of legalized gambling and the demise of unions to corrupt, have made drugs and prostitution the dominant source of revenues for organized crime. Legalize them and the vast majority of the street gangs and drug cartels will wither, because their dominant sources of revenue will dry up.
Blue collar crimes like robbery, burglary and larceny have become increasingly irrelevant as tangible personal property has grown cheap and currency has grown rare relative to real estate and intangible property, and improved technologies have motor vehicles harder targets and have made the odds of repeat offenders getting caught much higher.
Fraud remains an extremely profitable form of crime, but is both non-violent and requires more patience and skill than the vast majority of gang bangers with nothing to lose have at their disposal. Straight out kidnapping for ransom and extortion remain as potential organized crime revenue sources, but the overall crime level is low enough and law enforcement resources are great enough, that this offenses are too risky to engage in routinely for organized crime organizations.