I've always thought that drugs should be decriminalized. During my three-year residence in New Orleans, I witnessed the terrible price of the war on drugs first hand. Virtually everyone I knew was affected by a drug-related crime, usually a theft. My neighbor, a sixty-seven-year-old retired civil engineer and recent widow, was murdered by an addict when he came home during a burglary in progress. My route to work went through "The Projects" where schoolchildren had to dodge bullets on their way to their elementary schools.
If drugs were decriminalized, a huge fraction of the crimes in America would simply cease. Drug addicts need their drugs every single day, and for many or most of them, theft and prostitution are the only way to feed their addiction. Each person addicted to an illegal substance affects hundreds or thousands of innocent victims every year.
Stromberg suggests that if we do decriminalize or legalize drugs, there will be an inevitable rise in drug use. This is hardly news. But Stromberg points out that where this might have been a modest problem in the past, our new culture that worships artificial stimuli will probably embrace drugs if they're legalized.
I decided to write to Professor Stromberg with a question:
You correctly point out that addiction rates are strongly correlated with the availability of drugs, and thereby suggest to your readers that decriminalizing drugs would cause more damage than good. But this is a false conclusion. If one takes the whole cost to society into account, it's clear that decriminalizing drugs would be a huge benefit, even though there would surely be more addicts. ... If drugs were decriminalized, a huge fraction of the crimes in America would simply cease. Drug addicts need their drugs every single day, and for many or most of them, theft and prostitution are the only way to feed their addiction. Each person addicted to an illegal substance affects hundreds or thousands of innocent victims every year.Professor Stromberg replied almost immediately. He responded in part:
I do not in fact think that decriminalizing drugs would do more harm than good, if this is what comes across in my post then I've not communicated my point very well. Rather, my intention was to say that neither the war on drugs nor legalization is going to resolve problematic drug use in our society. I'm trying to add another dimension to our discussion of these issues by pointing out that our culture encourages drug use at the same time as it prohibits it.This is a new facet of the drug problem I'd never considered before. Drugs can be phenomenally addictive, physically and psychologically. Drug addiction has been a problem since drugs were first discovered. Sigmund Freud himself discovered the terrible addictive power of cocaine when experimenting with it as an anesthetic for eye surgery.
But in times past, drug use was stigmatized, and addiction was treated as a vice. Most people worked from sunup to sundown on farms or in factories, and merely staying alive and healthy were enough to keep everyone pretty busy.
Today life is all about filling our leisure time. When the front-page news is about who won American Idol (or its even more over-the-top successors), Professor Stromberg's thesis begins to make sense. In a culture that worships entertainment, how will legalized drugs be viewed? Will the stigma drop away?
The one thing that I know won't help solve the problem is our useless religion-based "war on drugs." There's no place in the world for moralistic solutions that have no scientific or sociological foundation. We need to replace our outdated policies with honest debate about solutions that actually work.