The Failure of Another Great Experiment ~ Is America About to Legalize Drugs?

The War on Drugs is very much on Americans’ minds at this time, much like the prohibition against alcoholic beverages was during the Great Depression.

opaDuring his on-line town hall meeting on Thursday of this week, President Obama demonstrated his considerable political skills and instincts when he responded to a question about legalizing drugs. He was asked if he thought legalizing drugs would be a good way to deal with the rising violence between drug cartels and law enforcement officers on both sides of nation’s southern border and to grow our economy. Without elaboration, he simply said, “No, I don’t think legalizing drugs is a good way to grow our economy.” Regardless of what he might really think, he definitely knows that this is a highly charged political issue, one better dodged, at least for the time being. But sentiment favoring legalization is growing, especially with reports of Mexican drug cartel violence spilling over into the U.S.


One of my students brought this up in class as her contribution to our discussion of economics in the news recently, and most of the class wanted to share their views on the issue. There was a good level of participation and, for a few moments, everybody wanted to talk at the same time. But I didn’t want to let the discussion sidetrack us from the lesson of the day.  Neither did I want to have the matter put to a vote as we often do with contentious issues.  So I didn’t let the debate go on too long. After all, our school is in the Bible Belt of north central Texas — I would like to be allowed to retire from teaching someday and not be dismissed in the near term for encouraging immorality.

According to a recent on-line CNN news article, Obama had promised to answer the most popular questions as decided by online votes to the administration’s website, More than 3.6 million votes on 104,000 specific questions submitted by almost 93,000 people were registered by the time voting closed earlier in the day.  From these, he only addressed the winning eight, six were written questions displayed on a screen for all to see, two others were video submissions.

Think about it – out of 104,000 questions submitted, a question on legalizing drugs was among the eight most popular. Of course, we don’t know how many times the same or similar questions might have been asked, but I can only imagine that repeated questions were consolidated in the selection process. This means that the War on Drugs and crime associated with the illegal transportation, sale and possession of drugs is very much on Americans’ minds at this time, much like the prohibition against alcoholic beverages was during the Great Depression.

Popular opinion during the Great Depression led to a grassroots movement and the eventual repeal of the 18th Amendment in 1933.  Why? Well, Americans who wished to imbibe were not deterred by Prohibition; the 18thAmendment to the Constitution, sometimes called the Great Experiment, merely drove the practice underground. Speakeasies and “hideaways” developed, especially in large cities, where partiers paid inflated prices for illegally imported booze from Canada, Cuba and Mexico. “White lightening” or “bathtub gin” of questionable origins was produced by many as a means of generating income while unemployment was at record levels. Many, including my own grandfather, became deathly ill after drinking some of this stuff, another name for which was “rotgut;” some even died. And border towns like Tijuana and Juarez, expanded and thrived to service our American appetites for illicit goods and services like gambling and prostitution. American dollars flowed from our economy to other nations and the popularity and profitability of all this attracted organized crime. The same exact thing is happening today because of the prohibition of recreational drugs like marijuana and cocaine. Demand on our side of the border is driving the supply up from Mexico and Colombia.

There are excellent arguments both for and against the idea of legalizing drugs in America. Wikipedia has published an excellent article compiling and addressing all the arguments I can think of including the health arguments, the crime, terrorism and social order arguments, the legal arguments, the personal development arguments, the moral and spiritual arguments, and the economic arguments. The site also provides a great number of links to other on-line sources of information and opinion as well as hard-copy publications – studies and books by well-respected thinkers such as Milton Friedman and Stephen B. Duke.

As a teacher of economics, I was most interested in the economic arguments, all of which support legalization. However, I am still very much open to debate on the subject as I can come down on either side of the issue depending on which side of my brain I choose to listen to. Currently, the rational side of my brain is speaking loudest because I believe legalization would: (1) eliminate the incentive for associated criminal activities; (2) save billions in wasted federal, state and local dollars trying to enforce unenforce- able laws; (3) save billions of dollars spent annually to support a large portion of our imprisoned population, thereby releasing these people back into the workforce; (4) facilitate regulations that could make the products consumed safer; (5) prevent the wasteful taking of innocent lives, and; (6) generate a substantial source of tax revenues, especially if things like marijuana were to be taxed at the same level as alcohol and tobacco.

If you’re tired of reading about this but still interested and desirous of some specifics on the economic arguments, there’s a pretty good video on YouTube of a Boston University economics professor, Jeffery Miron, making the economic case for legalization. It’s a bit dated – recorded in 2000, so the numbers he uses would have to be updated, but I have found it to be persuasive. The URL is Another video, a more recent one, is at It is of Milton Friedman, the eminent economist, making a case for legalization, one based not on the economics of the issue but on the morals of the issue. Interesting… an economist arguing from a moral perspective. Hmmmm… could we be witnessing the failure of another Great Experiment?

As always, you are invited to share your views by posting a comment.

Published in: on March 28, 2009 at 8:11 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thank you for a thoughtful and interesting article about the legalization of drugs. For most of my adult life I have believed that legalization was the right path to take for both economic and philosophical reasons.

    Over the past six years I’ve worked for an employer that hires quite a few people from a local drug and alcohol recovery center. And interestingly, it is the people who have made an honest and successful recovery from addiction who make the most compelling cases against legalization. Essentially, they’ve seen and felt the damage done in their own lives and would like to prevent others from going down a dangerous path.

    While I have mixed feelings about legalization, I certainly don’t think that imprisonment (particularly of non-violent offenders) is the right route to take. I do think that a strong case can be made for legalization of soft drugs, like marijuana and hashish, given their medicinal uses, relative safety, and the data from countries which don’t prosecute for their usage and possession.

    Thanks again for a great article.


  2. Opa,

    Bravo! I have been a proponent for the legalization of marijuana for as long as I have been an adult. The “War on Drugs” failure has never been more obvious than it is today. Our tax dollars have helped kill or capture the drug outlaws in South America, pushing the center of the trade further North until the battles and deaths are on our doorstep and NOW the public is beginning to realize what we have wrought. The economically myopic and hypocritically immoral drug policies that came to the forefront in the 60’s, and turned our drug law enforcement into a para-military operation, should no longer be the law of the land. Thank you for your brave comments on this matter.

  3. Opa,

    Good show! I really enjoyed your article. I have often wondered about the legality of drugs. Those who desire to partake of dangerous drugs will do so and those who do not wish to use these drugs will not use them. It is the same as alcohol.

    Somehow I believe that someone at the top somewhere is manipulating the drug sales. Maybe if we could stop and take a deep breath and truly see what is happening, we just might treat it the same as alcohol and collect the tax revenue, therefore breaking the backs of the cartel. Just my two cents!!!!

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