The Case for Drug Legalization : We Need to Make Drugs a Controlled Substance Just like Alcohol

By Johnson, Gary E. | The World and I, February 2000 | Go to article overview

The Case for Drug Legalization : We Need to Make Drugs a Controlled Substance Just like Alcohol


Johnson, Gary E., The World and I


I am a "cost-benefit" analysis person. What's the cost and what's the benefit? A couple of things scream out as failing cost-benefit criteria. One is education. The other is the war on drugs. We are presently spending $50 billion a year to combat drugs. I'm talking about police, courts, and jails. For the amount of money that we're putting into it, I want to suggest, the war on drugs is an absolute failure. My "outrageous" hypothesis is that under a legalized scenario, we could actually hold drug use level or see it decline.

Sometimes people say to me, "Governor, I am absolutely opposed to your stand on drugs." I respond by asking them, "You're for drugs, you want to see kids use drugs?" Let me make something clear. I'm not pro-drug. I'm against drugs. Don't do drugs. Drugs are a real handicap. Don't do alcohol or tobacco, either. They are real handicaps.

There's another issue beyond cost-benefit criteria. Should you go to jail for using drugs? And I'm not talking about doing drugs and committing a crime or driving a car. Should you go to jail for simply doing drugs? I say no, you shouldn't. People ask me, "What do you tell kids?" Well, you tell the truth: that by legalizing drugs, we can control them, regulate and tax them. If we legalize drugs, we might have a healthier society. And you explain how that might take place. But you emphasize that drugs are a bad choice. Don't do drugs. But if you do, we're not going to throw you in jail for it.

New laws and problems

If drugs are legalized, there will be a whole new set of laws. Let me mention a few of them. Let's say you can't do drugs if you're under 21. You can't sell drugs to kids. I say employers should be able to discriminate against drug users. Employers should be able to conduct drug tests, and they should not have to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Do drugs and commit a crime? Make it like a gun. Enhance the penalty for the crime in the same way we do today with guns. Do drugs and drive? There should be a law similar to one we have now for driving under the influence of alcohol.

I propose that we redirect the $50 billion that we're presently spending (state and federal) on the old laws to enforce a new set of laws. Society would be transformed if law enforcement could focus on crimes other than drug use. Police could crack down on speeding violations, burglaries, and other offenses that law enforcement now lacks the opportunity to enforce.

If drugs are legalized, there will be a new set of problems, but they will have only about half the negative consequence of those we have today. A legalization model will be a dynamic process that will be fine- tuned as we go along.

Does anybody want to press a button that would retroactively punish the 80 million Americans who have done illegal drugs over the years? I might point out that I'm one of those individuals. In running for my first term in office, I offered the fact that I had smoked marijuana. And the media were very quick to say, "Oh, so you experimented with marijuana?" "No," I said, "I smoked marijuana!" This is something I did, along with a lot of other people. I look back on it now, and I view drugs as a handicap. I stopped because it was a handicap. The same with drinking and tobacco. But did my friends and I belong in jail? I don't think that we should continue to lock up Americans because of bad choices.

And what about the bad choices regarding alcohol and tobacco? I've heard people say, "Governor, you're not comparing alcohol to drugs? You're not comparing tobacco to drugs?" I say, "Hell no! Alcohol killed 150,000 people last year. And I'm not talking about drinking and driving. I'm just talking about the health effects. The health effects of tobacco killed 450,000 people last year." I don't mean to be flippant, but I don't know of anybody ever dying from a marijuana overdose.

Less lethal than alcohol

I understand that 2,000 to 3,000 people died in 1998 from abusing cocaine and heroine. …

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