WHAT WOULD ACTUALLY HAPPEN IF DRUGS were legalized in America? For the last decade advocates of such a course, though politically weak, have dominated the intellectual debate for the simple reason that their criticism of existing policy holds a great deal of truth. The most conspicuous harms associated with drugs nowadays--violent crime, public disorder, government corruption, and diseases related to injection with dirty needles--are caused in large part by the country's prohibition policies.
But it's quite a leap from this critique to the conclusion that the best way to eliminate harms is to eliminate prohibition; the story is far more complicated. A decade of study presented in our book, Drug War Heresies: Learning from Other Vices, Times, and Places has convinced us that legalization of cocaine, marijuana, and heroin would lead to large reductions in drug-related crime and mortality, but also to large increases in drug use and addiction. Poor urban minority communities, which have been devastated by drug violence and drug imprisonments, might benefit substantially, but the larger body of middle-class Americans would likely be moderately worse off. It's impossible to persuasively quantify any of these effects, but in the face of this certainty (about the directions of change) and uncertainty (about magnitudes), it's much less clear than legalization advocates generally acknowledge just what American drug policy should be.
STEP RIGHT UP!
The usual assumption is that sales of cocaine, marijuana, and heroin would be carefully regulated if made legal. But the U.S. experience with regulating other dangerous vices is not encouraging. State and federal governments have ended up allowing gambling, smoking, and drinking to be heavily promoted in the marketplace, notwithstanding the abundant evidence that they cause great harm to many people.
Take gambling: In one generation the nation has shifted from an almost universal prohibition to the near universal availability of lotteries and casinos (and dizzying gambling promotion by government itself). A recent New York State lottery ad proclaimed, "We won't stop until everyone's a millionaire." In California the come-on is, "Everybody gets lucky sooner or later, so don't take any chances."
The legalization of gambling has brought great gains quite apart from the pleasure many people derive from fantasies of sudden wealth. Money that previously went to criminals and corrupt police has been diverted to public coffers. Still, the policy has also generated serious costs, from the moral debasement of state government to the expansion of problem gambling and, probably, white-collar crimes committed to cover gambling losses. About three million adults and adolescents now gamble so much that it causes real harm to themselves and others, up from about 1.1 million in 1975. As for lotteries, the poor spend a much higher share of their income on them than anyone else, making this method of financing public programs appallingly regressive. Households with incomes of less than $10,000 spent an average of $600 (on average more than 6 percent of their total incomes) on lottery tickets in 1997, the last year for which survey data are available. Compare this with households whose incomes exceed $100,000; they spent an average of $300 (less than one-third of 1 percent).
Tobacco is a different story. A continuing and aggressive public-health campaign has cut overall smoking rates in half in a generation. Few today doubt that cigarettes are hazardous (although smokers tend to think they're less hazardous for themselves than for other people), and the combination of civil restrictions on where a person can smoke, health-insurance incentives, and pressure from physicians has made smoking a stigmatized behavior in many communities and subcultures.
Nonetheless, it's striking that a generation after the nation became aware of smoking's dangers, the tobacco industry manages to retain and promote a mass legal market for a deadly product. …