I’ve been hearing from a number of constituents who are calling for full legalization and taxation of marijuana. I think that it is much more useful to focus on reducing mandatory minimum sentences for the harder drugs and I’m hopeful that our financial crunch will create the conditions for responsible movement on sentencing policy.
The case of drug legalization that people are making runs as follow: It’s a terrible thing to lock people up for just trying to have fun in their own way, or for addiction, which is really a disease. Prohibition drives up the cost of drugs and forces addicts to steal to maintain their habits. Drug dealers, working outside the law, have to turn to violence to resolve disputes that others can resolve in court. We are destroying civil society in Latin America by enriching ruthless drug lords.
Here are the weaknesses in this line of thought. First, incarcerations for drug possession alone are rare. Drug use per se is all too common for law enforcement agencies or judges to treat it as an offense meriting incarceration. Jails do hold some people who ostensibly are there on possession charges but a closer look shows most of these cases to be dealing cases that were plea bargained down to possession.
Second, even if we legalized drugs, drug use would still lead to crime. Today, illegal drug use is constrained by high cost and low availability. If we legalized drugs, drug users would use a lot more drugs. Cocaine use is never satiating. People with unlimited access will binge to exhaustion. Heroin is satiating, but heroin users can build up tolerance so that they need to maintain a huge habit. In a world where drugs were legal, we would have to expect continued habit-driven crime. Users would continue to use as much as they could afford and would steal to afford more.
Third, while gun violence in urban poverty areas may have its roots in the crack wars of the 80s, it is no longer consistently associated with drug use. People have guns and use guns to settle scores that have nothing to do with drugs.
It’s the drug lords in Latin America that give me the greatest pause about our drug policy. I do feel we have to take some responsibility for undermining the civil societies to the South of us by enriching their worst people. I spent a weekend about 10 years ago in conversations with Colombian drug policy scholar, Francisco Thoumi. He helped us understand how Colombia (rather than Peru or Bolivia where coca grows) had come to a position of dominance in the drug trade — it had to do with the corruption and alienation among the elites there that goes back long before cocaine. It was the corruption that created the drug trade, not the reverse. But he believed drugs have made the problem worse.
So the arguments in favor of legalization are not ridiculous, but they all have weaknesses, and when you set them against the horrors that unconstrained widespread use of cocaine and heroin would likely produce, they aren’t sufficiently compelling.
What is undeniable is that a whole lot of young men are going to jail for dealing drugs. But not for marijuana, rather cocaine and heroin: I did a study of state prison incarcerations for drug crimes in the mid-90s and of 1,000 cases sampled, only 3 were for marijuana (in all three cases dealing over 50 pounds).
I’m not ready to say that people shouldn’t go to jail for dealing drugs, but I do think that many people in Massachusetts are going to jail for too long. For some drug crimes, our mandatories are above the federal mandatories. So, I’ve filed legislation that would level out drug sentencing and I look forward to making common cause with other advocates of sentencing reform in the Fall.
I’m convinced that the most compelling argument for change in domestic drug policy is that we wasting money by punishing lower level drug dealers — some of them just kids who sell cocaine the way kids I knew sold firecrackers — as if they were rapists and murderers. Many drug dealers are worse than that — violent gang members — but prosecutors can find other ways to lock them up. Prosecutors don’t need unreasonable mandatory drug sentences in their arsenal. In a financial crunch, we might be able to face this fact objectively and make some needed changes.
Update: Text of a MoveOn.org petition signed by a number of constituents, January 2015:
“WE THE PEOPLE need to stand and fight together to stop the number of people dying from heroin overdoses. Heroin is killing people in staggering numbers in Massachusetts. More often than not, it is killing our younger generation daily. We are losing the youth of our nation.”