Will Legalizing Drugs Solve Our Race Problems?

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Could legalizing drugs really be the solution to the problems plaguing black America? According to John McWhorter, it could. In a New Year's Eve piece at The New Republic, McWhorter pushes for the United States to heed former English drug official Bob Ainsworth's recent proposal for the legalization of all drugs. McWhorter's argument is simple: if all drugs are made available and sold at a low price at CVS or Walgreens, the sale of drugs on the street would be come obsolete, forcing, specifically, young black males who would normally choose to make money dealing to complete high school and get legitimate jobs. "That is neither an exaggeration nor an oversimplification," insists McWhorter, who shoots down the argument that "this could only happen with low-skill factory jobs available a bus ride away from all black neighborhoods ... Too many people of all colors of modest education manage to get by without taking a time machine to the 1940s, and after the War on Drugs black men would be no exception."

McWhorter paints an optimistic picture of a new black community wherein young black men are "much less likely to wind up in prison cells or caskets, would be a constant presence--and thus stay in the lives of their children." Black boys would not see "drug-addicted ex-cons" as the norm, he predicts. "And something else these boys would  not grow up with is a bone-deep sense of the police--and thus whites--as an enemy. Because there would be no reason for the police to prowl through his neighborhood."

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McWhorter's immodest proposal for drug legalization as the cure-all for black poverty and, essentially, racism in America ("No more episodes like Henry Louis Gates supposing that an encounter with a policeman on his front porch might be about race...And no more books with titles like Wrong Place, Wrong Time: Trauma and Violence in the Lives of Young Black Men or The New Jim Crow") has received a variety of reactions. Mostly, the general notion that the war on drugs should end is embraced, but McWhorter's suggestion that the result will be a smooth and easy success, is questioned.

  • What About the Potential Consequences?  The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates is supportive of a plan to reduce the amount of African Americans in prison, but questions whether the potential downsides of making all drugs so easily accessible might outweigh the benefits. He asks:
Would we be faced with more drug addiction? Would that drug addiction be concentrated more among the poor, and thus among blacks? Would we have to put more money into treatment? Would that, in and of itself, become a race issue? Would we see more children addicted to drugs? Are we prepared for the spectacle of kids ODing on legal drugs? How much would we cut the prison population? Would states be willing to put out money to make sure ex-cons were reintegrated into society? And what does it even mean to legalize drugs? Is this a matter of state law? Federal law? How would this actually happen?
  • Will There Be Enough Jobs for Everyone? Think Progress blogger Matthew Yglesias isn't convinced by McWhorter's argument that former drug dealers will be able to make a smooth transition into the legitimate job world.
If black men currently earning black market drug incomes lost that opportunity, it’s true that some of them would find jobs in the legitimate workforce. But unemployment would still be really high, working class unemployment would still be really high, African-American unemployment would still be really high, and working class African-American unemployment would still be really really high. It’s just not within people’s power to conjure up intense demand for labor from low-skill individuals with spotty history’s in the legitimate workforce. If a guy walks through your door and says “I’m 25, I didn’t finish high school, and I’ve never held a legitimate job” you’d have to be a bit nuts to offer him a minimum wage job when there are so many other jobless people out there you could try to hire.
  • Another Plus: Legal Drugs are Safer Although he acknowledges the potential for serious prescription drug addiction, such as the current popularity of potent painkillers such as Oxycontin, Vincent Nunes points out that legalization and regulation of drugs as pharmaceuticals "takes away the inherent dangers of wayward drug production; namely the substitution of fillers to replace certain elements."

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