David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected], 11/30/01
Often, divergent intellectual pathways can lead to similar conclusions, and drug policy reform is an excellent example of this. There may be no other issue that draws together such diverse advocates, representing such wide ranging, sometimes starkly opposing viewpoints.
Several years ago, I was part of a team that helped organize the drug policy track for a justice reform conference held in Springfield, a mid-size city in western Massachusetts. One of the panelists there was Dr. Jeffrey Miron, an economist at Boston University and a true, free-market libertarian. In a journal article published a short time later, Miron discussed drug prohibition and its economics, in which he pointed out among other things -- in contrast with the prevailing view of drug use as a drain on society -- that in strict economic terms, money spent by consumers on drugs is a benefit, not a cost.
Miron wasn't advocating that people use drugs -- nor that they don't -- but merely explaining a concept to help others think through the issue more clearly. Though I accepted Miron's observation in that spirit, my initial reaction was that this is not our strongest argument (politically at least) for drug legalization. Money spent by consumers on drugs might help to employ people and aid the economy on that end of the equation. But on the other end, drug use, while not universally evil as many believe, does indeed cause serious harm to some. There were, in my opinion, much stronger, certainly more palatable reasons to be for legalization than the economic benefits of the drug trade.
In the intervening years, I've concluded that Miron's argument is more compelling than I originally thought. It's easy to dismiss the economic benefits of an industry when you already have a job. But for many in our nation's poorest neighborhoods -- or in the world's poorest regions -- drug growing or distributing or selling is the only work available.
The ripple effects from that may be even more important. At a conference in New Jersey a few years ago, Imani Woods, a notable in the harm reduction movement, described a chain of events she'd observed on a corridor of a once busy Harlem avenue. The neighborhood, in addition to all its storefronts, had a substantial drug scene -- the "open-air drug market," as it's often called.
Eventually, the city conducted a "sweep," clearing the drug market off of that neighborhood's sidewalks, or at least eliminating that glaring form of it. But the neighborhood didn't let out a sigh of relief, at least not for long. It turned out that for all the pathologies associated with the illicit, open-air drug trade, the influx of people and cash that it brought was a cornerstone of the local economy, without which the rest would become unsustainable. Over the months following the sweep, store after store shut down for block after block, leaving a desolate stretch of blighted urban cityscape.
The unintended consequences of a drug war operation serve as an indicator of some of the challenges that may be faced in the immediate years after legalization is enacted. Earlier this week, I spoke with an economic justice activist in Philadelphia, with whom I shared my view of the impact of drug prohibition on our poorest communities. By creating a massive criminal underground, I argued, prohibition fuels violence and disorder, particularly in the inner cities, and these conditions drive away business and make every other method of addressing poverty far more difficult. Legalization could reduce the violence and open up greater possibilities for economic development, better schools, etc.
He agreed, but pointed out a problem given where we are at now. Large numbers of people are dependent on the drug trade in its current form for their only source of employment. If drugs were legalized tomorrow, the resulting unemployment would cause massive economic turmoil. As damaging as prohibition is to poor communities, then, how we make the transition to a post-prohibition system is also an issue of great importance.
Drug trade participants understand this. According to Valerie Vande Panne, a drug reform activist and former East Harlem resident, the neighborhood drug dealers were not in favor of legalization; they understood very well that legalization would put them out of business, and that was a greater threat to them than the risk of incarceration. Across the continent in rural British Columbia, organizers with the province's Marijuana Party report that many marijuana growers are less than enthusiastic about the party's efforts to enact marijuana legalization, for the same reason.
All of the above would also apply if the drug trade were erased, not through legalization, but by a cessation of use. As damaging as drug use can sometimes be, the economic consequences for society could be catastrophic, if the drug warriors were to suddenly succeed in their implausible goal of eradicating drugs -- as legitimately problematic as drug addiction and its attendant consequences can be. But if drug sales, and therefore drug users and dealers, play that important a part in our economy, do they deserve to be so demonized as government and society currently do?
Economic laws are not so easily repealed as are laws of Congress, the views of congressional drug warriors notwithstanding; cracking down on drug users or sellers has no hope of stopping the overwhelming economic force of human habit. Those who participate in the drug scene, in whatever capacity, cannot simply be removed from society, as for better or worse, we are all interdependent and interlinked in a web of social and economic activity. We marginalize and persecute members of society, and ignore their fundamental economic realities, at our cost and peril.