Let me begin by saying that here are many things that I can agree with (l)ibertarians on. I wholeheartedly support shrinking and/or eliminating large government bureaucracies like the Department of Education and the EPA. I also support returning power to the states and limiting the ever-encroaching power of the Federal government. I would argue that many conservatives share much in common with the "small l" libertarians.
Where the water becomes muddy is when some Libertarians (large L) begin to spout off ideas that have little to do with conservatism or for that matter civilized government. The legalization of marijuana and/or other illegal drugs is one such idea. This idea can be quite a centerpiece of Libertarian thought for some people and results in them being largely ballyhooed as a "fringe" group. Those who support legalization frequently repeat the same misleading arguments over and over again to support their viewpoints on legalizing drugs. Below are several common myths used to support the legalization of marijuana and/or other illicit drugs and the some data and statistics that contradict them.
Myth #1: Countries like the Netherlands that have a more open approach to marijuana have less drug use than the United States. We should adopt their approach.
Fact: While it is true that the U.S. has an increased number of drug users than the Netherlands, it is a bit like comparing apples to oranges. Especially if you consider that one U.S. state called New York is both larger and more populous than the entire country of the Netherlands . Given the higher population of the U.S. compared to the Netherlands, it should not come to anyone's surprise that the drug statistics will be higher.
I might also add that since the adoption of the a more liberal approach by the Netherlands, their heroine addiction rate has tripled. It is also questionable as to whether the Netherlands' choice to classify marijuana as a "soft drug" is entirely based on solid reasoning. In 2008, 4.7 million out of 7 million people in the U.S. who were 12 years and older and classified as abusing and/or addicted to an illicit drug where marijuana users. In 2009, the leading drug of dependence and/or abuse in the U.S. among those 12 years and older was marijuana, ranked above cocaine and heroin (Figure 7.2). It appears that marijuana is not quite the "harmless" drug that some would like to think it is.
Myth # 2: Drug use does not hurt anyone else, only the person who uses it.
Fact: This is "sounds" like a good argument, but in reality is utterly false. According to The NSDUH (National Survey On Drug Use And Health) Report in 2005, adults who were arrested within the past year for serious crimes were more likely to have used an illicit drug in the past year than those who were not arrested for serious crimes (60.1 percent to 13.6). Of those who had been arrested for a serious crime, 46% had used marijuana within the past year, compared to the 10% who were not arrested for serious crimes (For more statistics on how marijuana specifically affects youth criminal behaviors go here).
Myth #4: Alcohol Is Worse Than Marijuana
Fact: Typically the argument from the pro-legalization crowd is that people are less impaired under the influence of marijuana when driving than when drunk. This is is only a half-truth. Marijuana use still causes significant impairment. The difference is in the way it impairs driving function. According to the above cited study, alcohol is more detrimental to complex tasks that require conscious control, while marijuana is more detrimental to highly automatic driving functions.
Another problem with this specific pro-legalization argument is that the "research" used to support their claim that marijuana does not impair driving fails to take into consideration the method used to measure the presence of marijuana. Their "research" often measures marijuana use by crashed drivers by looking for an inactive metabolite of THC in blood or urine that is present days after smoking marijuana and indicates that marijuana was used in the past. The surveys that directly measure TCH in the blood (that establish more recent use of the drug) indicates that individuals who use marijuana are 3-7 times more likely to have been responsible for their crash than drivers who do not use the drug.
Myth # 5: The War on Drugs is a complete failure and our approach needs a complete overhaul.
Fact: While there is always room for improvement in the War on Drugs, the above myth is not backed by any data. In fact, when you look at the data the War on Drugs appears to be successful for the most part. Over the last twenty years overall drug use has decreased in the United States by one-third. That is 9.5 million less people using drugs. Cocaine use has decrease by 70% over the last 15 years. While we still have significant drug problem in this country, we have made progress in the right direction.
Another criticism of the War on Drugs is that the focus is too much on the criminalization of drugs and not enough on the treatment aspect. The truth is that one-half of one percent of people who use marijuana are incarcerated. The Michigan Department of Corrections just finished a study that found only 15 out of the 7,000 inmates had been incarcerated for first time drug possession charges. The reality is that very few people are incarcerated for drug possession only.
There does need to be a more coordinated effort between the criminal justice system and treatment facilities, but it is not as if there are no attempts at treatment over incarceration. In fact, there are now drug treatment courts that handle drug addicted offenders and provide supervision and treatment. These special courts appear to be working. Those individuals who go through the programs only have a 2-20% chance of being a repeat offender compared to the 50% number of those who do not go through the program.
The cost of the War on Drugs is also used as an argument for legalization. While it does cost federal dollars to combat drugs in this country, the statistics that the pro-legalization crowd uses can be misleading. In 2004, the federal budget to combat drugs was 11.7 billion. Fifty-eight percent of the budget went to treatment, thirty-nine percent to prevention, and three percent to enforcement. If you compare that to the 160 billion dollars that drug abuse cost taxpayers in 2000 (it was likely higher in 2004), 11.7 billion is but a small amount to combat the problem.
Drug abuse is a serious problems in this country. We always need to be open to new ideas in the areas of education, prevention, and treatment. However, legalization of these destructive substances is not the road we need to go down in this country. Rather our goal should be to build upon the successes of the drug treatment courts and help people get the treatment they need, while continuing to protect the public from the associated crime drug use brings.