We are in the midst of a weeklong editorial extravaganza in which the New York Times expounds at length on why marijuana should be legalized. What they present as a giant leap is really a baby step. All illegal drugs should be legalized and regulated.

Here is the difference between a politician and an opinion writer: a politician must always keep his positions firmly within the small box of what is currently acceptable to the majority of the public, whereas a writer can tell the truth. This is one reason why people generally do not turn to politicians when they want to hear the truth. It is therefore a responsibility of those who craft opinions for a living to tell the truth. To wait around for sluggish and outmoded public opinions to change is perhaps the duty of politicians, but not of people whose job it is to tell the truth. This is a long way of saying that if your media outlet of choice is only able to make incremental declarations of obvious truths once they become popular, you might be well served to seek out more honest sources of opinions.

Yes, marijuana should be legalized. But it should not be legalized just because it is the most harmless of the illegal drugs. It should be legalized for the same reasons that the other illegal drugs should be legalized. Advocating legal weed and still pretending to recoil in horror at the idea of putting an end to the awful "War on Drugs" as a whole is the mark of someone afraid of the whole truth.

The relative harm of legal and illegal drugs

How deadly are drugs? The CDC's latest report on drug-induced mortality, which covers illegal drugs and prescription drugs but not alcohol, found this: "During 2010 (the year in which the latest national NVSS mortality data are available), a total of 40,393 drug-induced deaths occurred in the United States. The majority [74.3%] of drug-induced deaths were unintentional." The remainder were mostly suicides and accidental drug poisoning, and mental disorders stemming from drug use.

How does this compare with the drugs that are currently legal? According to the CDC, alcohol is responsible for "approximately 88,000 deaths per year from 2006–2010, and accounted for 1 in 10 deaths among working-age adults." And tobacco? Including the effects of secondhand smoke, the CDC says smoking is responsible for one in every five deaths in the U.S.—about 480,000 Americans each year. Alcohol, which has been legal for 80 years, and tobacco, which has been legal since time immemorial, combine to kill 14 times as many Americans each year as all illegal drugs and prescription drugs put together.

Even discounting alcohol's higher rates of usage, it's unquestionably damaging, both to users and society at large. A study published in the respected British medical journal The Lancet ranked alcohol as the most harmful drug, outweighing heroin, crack, and crystal meth. Tobacco was placed in the top ten, above ketamine, ecstasy, and LSD.

Two highly harmful drugs are legal, regulated and freely available. Yet our arbitrarily selected group of illegal drugs are considered taboo, evidence of moral failing, and justification for depriving people of their freedom, whereas alcohol and tobacco are considered integral parts of our culture—ones often enjoyed by the same politicians, judges, and police who are all too happy to lock up illegal drug users.

The harm of the war on drugs

America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. About 2.3 million Americans are in jail or prisons. Roughly a quarter of them have drug convictions. In federal prisons, fully half of the inmates are there for drug crimes. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Americans are incarcerated because of our nation's drug laws. Millions more have been in the past. As a result of America's criminalization of drugs, entire nations have been turned into warring narco-states. Lucrative black markets have been created. Criminal gangs have been provided a handy source of revenue. Countless thousands of innocent civilians have been killed as a side effect of battles for control of the illegal drug market.

And for all of our enforcement, the price of cocaine has plummeted by more than 80% in the past 30 years.

We speak of drug abuse as having a human cost. But the war on drugs itself has its own human cost. A horrific human cost! Imprisoning a human being is among the most damaging things that our society can do to someone, and yet we funnel great multitudes of our fellow citizens into prisons with scarcely a second thought, in pursuit of a phantom ideal of a drug-free society. Families are destroyed. Lives are destroyed. This is a direct result of our choice to treat drugs as the subject of a war that must be won with harsh measures.

How many promising people have rotted away in jail, losing the best years of their lives, because they had a drug abuse problem, or because they were poor and wanted to make some spending money, or because their boyfriend decided to use their apartment as a stash house? The horror stories are endless. America's knee-jerk and thoughtless inclination to deprive people of freedom and lock them in cages as a penalty for using drugs is sickening. It is one of the great moral crimes of our lifetime.

Legalizing one drug at a time and leaving the rest in the maw of the criminal justice system is absurd incrementalism. It is cowardly. It means acquiescing to the continued imprisonment of those who sell or consume the wrong drugs, while pretending that our own personal drug preferences somehow carry more moral value. It is not an intellectually honest response to the horribly misguided war on drugs.

Yes, legalizing marijuana is a step in the right direction. But to end the call for reform there is to sacrifice an unknown number of future generations of Americans on the pyre of military-style drug enforcement, just because we don't happen to share their drug of choice. Many people will tell you that using drugs here and there is okay, but selling drugs should be a serious crime. The users create the sellers! You cannot use drugs and then excuse yourself from complicity in drug sales. Someone must sell the drugs that you use. There is no great moral distinction. It is a package deal.

No serious person at any level of policy enforcement believes that the war on drugs can or will be won. Nevertheless, running on sheer mindless momentum, we press on, conducting public policy in the manner of someone who burns down their own house to try to get rid of the mice.

A public health issue

Drug abuse, like alcohol or tobacco abuse, is bad for you. It is a serious public health issue. It is a serious criminal issue only because we make it one. With our own laws, we create a black market. With our own laws, we create an instant class of criminals. With our own laws, we shove those who need real help into prisons rather than into rehab. Drug treatment has been determined to be many times more effective than incarceration as a public policy. We ignore this in favor of punishment.

It is stupid, and it does not work.

If you had a friend or family member with a drug abuse problem, you would likely seek out treatment for them. You might help them get into rehab, or into a 12-step program. You almost certainly would not hope to see them imprisoned. Nor, for that matter, would you call up the police station and provide them with a list of names of your friends and family members who have used drugs recreationally, or sold drugs at one time or another. Nor do I see many of you marching yourselves down to the precinct and presenting a signed confession of your own past drug crimes.

Why not? Because most of us understand at a gut level that jail is a terrible thing, and we would not wish such a thing to be visited upon our loved ones or ourselves. We know that much drug use is a pastime (if not a healthy one) of people able to make their own choices, and we know that those people who do have serious problems with drug abuse need help, not incarceration. Yet we blithely countenance a system that arrests and incarcerates hundreds of thousands of people who have done or sold the very same drugs that we have—mostly minorities, and the poor, and those without the resources to extricate themselves from the claws of the U.S. criminal justice system.

This is hypocrisy. Unless you would feel completely comfortable seeing the full weight of our laws brought down upon the current or former drug users that you know, love, or are, you should not feel comfortable seeing others so harshly punished.

Legalized drugs can be regulated. Legalized drugs can be taxed. That money—and the money saved by not incarcerating hundreds of thousands of humans on drug offenses, and by not paying for a paramilitary anti-drug law enforcement operation that occupies our cities and spans the globe—can be spent on drug treatment, and on anti-poverty programs, and on education, and on other things that might actually be effective in addressing the drug problem in America.


Love of intoxication is just one of many human follies. It has been thus for thousands of years. It is a vice, yes. But it is largely a vice turned inward. Part of human freedom is the freedom to hurt ourselves if we so choose. Laws should stop people from hurting one another. The choice to use drugs is like the choice to engage in various esoteric sexual practices: don't do it if it's not for you.

We must realize that we are not bound by a black-and-white choice to either condone something as fine, or to throw people in prison because of it. Strict laws should be used to put limits on the most dangerous forms of social behavior, not as a blunt tool to enforce how we might wish people should behave in their own homes. Let's all grow up.

During the Vietnam war, John Kerry famously asked, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" Every day that we fail to call for an end to the ill-conceived war on drugs, we condemn more Americans to oblivion because we are too timid to admit that our policy is a mistake. Drugs are a health issue. The war on drugs has failed, an unmitigated disaster that has caused far more harm than it has prevented. And incarceration is its own kind of social ill that we should strive to avoid.

Legalize drugs, regulate drugs, and get busy addressing this problem in a rational way. It is long overdue.

[Image by Jim Cooke/ photos via Shutterstock]