Another Prohibitionist Is Blind to the Drug War's Costs

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The black market in marijuana causes staggering amounts of death, corruption, and incarceration. Failing to confront that is deeply irresponsible. 

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What is it about the marijuana legalization debate that makes opponents totally blind to the costs of the status quo? Says Dennis Prager, writing in National Review, "When something desirable is made easier to obtain, more people will obtain it. It is difficult to imagine an exception to this commonsense observation. So legalizing marijuana is foolish because it leads to far more use of the drug and the availability of ever more potent forms." Totally unmentioned are the catastrophic consequences of ongoing marijuana prohibition by federal and state authorities.

Shall we review them?

When something desirable is made illegal, a black market develops. The premium paid on the black market creates powerful incentives for lots of people, including children, to enter the illegal trade. Without recourse to the law, traders grow violent enforcing contracts with suppliers, protecting their product from theft, and maintaining a monopoly presence in their territories -- that is to say, they form drug gangs that transform neighborhoods into killing zones.

On the supply side, criminal syndicates form in foreign countries, where they destabilize whole governments and participate in orgies of violence like the one that has gripped Mexico for several years. Whole wars are fueled by drug markets. Whole bureaucracies are corrupted. On the demand side, consumers buying drugs on the black market frequently get a less safe product than would otherwise be available, increasing the dangers associated with recreational consumption. They also lose respect for the rule of law due to the criminalization of consensual adult behavior.

In the United States, prohibition caused federal and state governments to invest countless hundreds of billions in a War on Drugs that has never stopped drugs from being easily available and never will. Beyond the money spent, we've paid for waging the war on drugs in cops corrupted by drug money, border guards corrupted by the same, weakened Fourth Amendment protections and other civil-liberties abrogations, and the dubious distinction of imprisoning a proportion of our citizenry more in line with authoritarian regimes than liberal democracies.

We've even denied terminally ill cancer patients substances that would ease their pain.

Prager is correct that some people harm themselves by smoking marijuana, and that making it easier to get will probably mean that marginally more people suffer those harms. Will he acknowledge the catastrophic harms that have resulted from decades of the War on Drugs? I've never known a defender of the status quo to do so. I suspect that's because once a person confronts the full cost of the War on Drugs, they almost inevitably begin to advocate for liberalizing reforms, whether decriminalization or legalization. Meanwhile, those who haven't yet confronted or acknowledged the costs of the War on Drugs self-righteously speak as if it is advocates of liberalization who are hurting children -- even as bloodied corpses that result from the black markets they want to sustain fill the morgues of urban America and the streets of Latin America.

What blindness, to simply ignore those costs!


There are, of course, black markets in drugs other than marijuana, many of them more violent. That doesn't change the fact that marijuana prohibition has created significant harms in all the areas mentioned, or that, among widely used illegal drugs, it is easily one of the safest and least harmful -- and far less harmful to the typical user than being thrown in prison for getting high.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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