NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Admit Defeat and Legalize Drugs

September 17, 2001

Despite the billions of taxpayer dollars spent to prosecute the War on Drugs, many experts have concluded that that effort has failed. Nobel laureate economist Gary S. Becker has recently written about the debate over cutting our losses and legalizing drugs.

He argues legalization should be combined with a high "sin" tax on users, safeguards against sales to children, and severe punishment to anyone who works or drives while impaired by drugs.

  • The U.S. alone spends almost $40 billion annually fighting the drug war.
  • Drug offenders now account for more that 30 percent of all U.S. inmates.
  • Estimates place the world market value of illegal drugs at several hundreds of billions of dollars.

Legalization proponents cite history and borrow from policies governing other substances to explain how legalization might work.

  • Ending Prohibition and legalizing alcohol almost immediately cleaned up the liquor industry -- and started the process of depriving gangsters of their lucrative markets.
  • Lowering street prices for drugs -- thereby encouraging greater consumption -- could be offset by high excise taxes.
  • Sales to minors could be discouraged by harsh punishments -- in much the same way we control sales of alcohol and cigarettes to children.
  • Those who drive or work under the influence of drugs might be subject to the same punishments some nations impose on drunk drivers -- loss of licenses, fines and stiff jail sentences.

Critics say the present system has not been effective in discouraging drug experimentation among the young in part because suppliers are subject to punishments whether they sell to adults or children.

Source: Gary S. Becker (University of Chicago), "It's Time to Give Up the War on Drugs," Business Week, September 17, 2001.


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