One need only turn on the 11o'clock news to determine whether the "war on drugs" has been a success or a failure. Border police and the FBI continue to nab ever-increasing caches of illegal drugs, while our "tough on crime" policies haul thousands to jail on drug trafficking and possession charges. Yet, people young and old continue to purchase and consume large amounts of drugs for a variety of reasons, ranging from medicinal to escapism.
Even the most ardent drug enforcers have to admit that the current offensive against drugs has been a dismal failure, because the government cannot prevent what people want to do merely through laws (and their enforcement). But does this automatically mean that drugs should be legalized? We already have a case study to determine whether drug legalization policies will be successful. America's struggles with alcohol provide a ready-made experiment in which the pros and cons of drug legalization can be measured in terms of lives affected and dollars spent.
In the early portion of the 20th century, our government responded to the demands of various temperance groups and prohibited the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages. At about the same time, organized crime gained power in cities such as Chicago and New York. Since the general populace still had a voracious appetite for alcohol, gangsters such as Al Capone made millions dealing in this illicit trade. As their motive was to maximize profits regardless of cost, the gangsters handled rivals in their own, intimate way - as the "Valentine's Day Massacre" graphically showed. The violence contributed to the eventual repeal of Prohibition laws, and America enjoyed the products of fermented grapes, wheat and barley once more.
In 1999, we can see what more than a half century of legalized alcohol use has done. Gangs do not shoot each other and innocent bystanders for the right to sell beer and wine. No one has to sneak into "speak-easies" in order to enjoy alcohol. Jails do not bust at the seams due to arrests for alcohol possession and sales. Our major brewing companies fund many of our sporting events and account for an enormous amount of television revenue, helping to support the majestic stadiums, arenas and player-coaching salaries that have skyrocketed in recent years. No one has to attack anyone to get a beer; an alcoholic is more likely to beg for a dollar or so than rob someone at gunpoint to obtain his or her "fix." And when was the last time you heard of someone burglarizing a house to steal items for resale later just to obtain cheap wine?
But there are costs for the use of alcoholic beverages, and those costs are enormous. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that in 1998, 16,189 people in the United States were killed in crashes involving alcohol alone (not cocaine or speed, just alcohol), and 1,058,990 more were injured. Economically, this resulted in an...