Powers ’15: Legalize all drugs

Opinions Columnist
Sunday, November 24, 2013

In April, possession of small amounts of marijuana was decriminalized in Rhode Island. Some might wonder what motivated the state government to loosen restrictions on a substance that causes such apparent mental impairment. How could this possibly benefit the state?

At the start of any given weekend on College Hill, many students prepare to drink, smoke, roll, trip and partake in other illegal drug-related activities. A Herald poll conducted last semester found that during the previous year, 85 percent of students had consumed alcohol, 49 percent had used marijuana, 9 percent had used ecstasy — also known as MDMA —  and at least 7 percent had used some psychedelic agent (“Poll: White, older students more likely to use substances,” Apr. 17). Many would say that, for the most part, the University turns a blind eye to this debauchery — a policy generally supported by the student body.

But why does an institution of higher learning seemingly undermine — or, at best, minimally support — the efforts of the exorbitant drug war being waged by the U.S. federal government? Brown is known for its almost obnoxious commitment to social justice, and I believe that the end of drug prohibition would better society in ways so tangible that they would trump all other considerations. There is no need to justify drug legalization on the basis of some supposedly inalienable rights. Rights are those entities that are more significant than the consequences precipitated by actions that would violate them.

For example, we would allow a talented cancer researcher to quit his job and take up professional gambling because his right to self-determination takes precedence over the utility he could have for society. But as I said before, we need not resort to any consideration of rights, as the consequences of drug legalization engender massive societal benefits.

So what are legalization’s benefits? It seems counterintuitive that allowing the use of mind-altering substances that decrease one’s ability to think rationally could have benefits for society. And it may be true that for the average individual, the overall cost of using drugs outweighs the utility. Few would deny the overt detriments of abuse and dependence.

But most drugs rarely make the user a more dangerous member of society — particularly when there is no driving involved. It is not the drug users but the drug war that makes our society more dangerous.

As was shown by the inelasticity of the demand of alcoholics and recreational drinkers during Prohibition, artificially reducing the supply of drugs makes dealing a highly profitable criminal enterprise. Intense competition between dealers, combined with a lack of government enforcement of property rights, is the perfect incentive for the rampant violent crime necessary to succeed in a “might makes right” market. In the 1920s, the United States saw the rise of gangsters like Al Capone and Bugs Moran, along with a bloom of criminal activity that lasted until the end of Prohibition in 1933.

It’s difficult to keep drugs out of maximum-security prisons. It’s virtually impossible to keep them off the streets. And the extremely marginal success of efforts to prohibit drug use is wholly eclipsed by unavoidable increases in crime, as seen during Prohibition.

During my senior year of high school, I volunteered at a small local hospital and worked alongside a black man in his mid-20s. He came from a bad neighborhood, and I was always morbidly fascinated by his depiction of his environment and the role drug crimes played in it. He once showed me a local news video of a man’s throat being slit in a rundown bar. I saw him calmly sitting in the background, sipping his drink. He told me he was upset that they stopped the music when the ambulance came. Just the circle of life, right?

The profits of drug crime afford the perpetrators social status, making them role models that younger members of their communities aspire to emulate. I can only imagine the seductive contrast of success by drug dealing in the depressing morass that is west Philadelphia. This anecdotal evidence does not prove my point, but it serves as a modern-day illustration of the type of alluring drug culture fostered by the drug war.

So what would happen if we were to legalize drug use today? Like the end of alcohol prohibition in the United States, the decriminalization of drug use in other countries has led to undeniable benefits. In the five years since Portugal decriminalized drugs, drug-related deaths and transmission of HIV have decreased by over 25 and 75 percent, respectively. Estimates place the annual cost of the drug war in America at anywhere from $50 to 150 billion. Given the fiscal state of the nation, this seems as strong a motivation as any to do away with this inefficacious policy.

I understand the desire to regulate drugs, but similar to the motivation to regulate guns, the end goal is simply unrealistic. Our choice is not between a world with drugs and a world without drugs. Our choice is between a world with drugs and a world with drugs, violent drug crime, more drug-related deaths and the massive economic costs of an ineffective drug war.


Andrew Powers ’15 can be reached at and will respond to all questions and comments.



  1. TheRationale says:

    Here’s a scary thought: Let people do what they want and be responsible for their own actions. Let people use drugs. Just don’t make me pay for it. Medical bills, drug war, I don’t care.

    If someone decides to use pot and I don’t have to smell it, go for it.
    If someone wants to snort cocaine, have a ball.
    If someone wants to get drunk, let it flow.
    If someone wants me to pay their medical bills, they can get lost.

    Did you contract cancer after years of cigarette use? Did you overdose from heroin and need ER care? Did you lose your job? YOU deal with it. YOU made those decisions, you CAN’T claim you didn’t know the risks (or in some cases, assurances). NOBODY should be forced to pay (through taxes) for your own self-inflicted harm but YOU. If you can pay for it, lovely! If you can’t, you either suffer/die or assume the debt until you can pay it off.

    That’s the scary part for some. The idea that people may have to be responsible for their own actions, the idea that some people will have to learn the hard way, the idea that it may not be “nice.”

    • A nice thought. However, the problem is that medical bills are never apportioned to the things that caused them. The general rule is that nearly everybody has some stupid, unhealthy habits, so they don’t want to have medical coverage denied because someone made the judgment call that they have eaten too many cheeseburgers to qualify for medical insurance.

  2. This isn’t a new subject for discussion. Anyone who wants more detailed information should google “Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy.” That is a collection of the full text of every major government commission report on the subject from around the world, over the last 100 years. They all reached remarkably similar conclusions, no matter who did them, or where, or when, or why.

    Those who are new to the collection will want to start with “Licit and Illicit Drugs”. That is the best overall review of the problem ever written. It will give you a good summary of what you would learn if you read all the other reports.

    Then read “The non-medical use of drugs in the US by Charles Whitebread.” That is an excellent, and funny, history of how we got the marijuana laws.

    Then read “The Drug Hang-Up by Rufus King”. That is another excellent history with a lot of good information on what the drug war is really about — as Mr. King learned directly from Harry Anslinger.

    The evidence on drug policy is simply overwhelming. There are two sides to the issue: Those who have read the research, and those who haven’t.

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