When I joined the Los Angeles Police Department in 1980, I was a strong
supporter of the notion that illegal drugs should stay that way and that
the enforcement of drug laws should be a top priority.

But my views quickly changed once I hit the streets. Assigned to the rugged
77th Street Division in the heart of South-Central, I saw firsthand the
social problems one could find in any community awash in the trafficking
and use of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and other controlled substances.

During my first months on patrol, after handling hundreds of drug calls and
arresting scores of people for possessing various illegal substances, I
began to doubt what my peers and I were doing.

I saw violent criminals walking the streets because the jail space they
rightfully deserved was occupied by nonviolent drug offenders. When we
carted small-time drug dealers off to prison, I saw other sellers quickly
step in to fill the void.

I started to view most people involved with drugs either as broken souls
who made self-destructive choices or as harmless people who indulged their
appetites in moderation -- not as crooks who needed to be punished.

I tried to reconcile what I saw with my views about firmly enforcing drug
laws. At first I accepted the arguments of politicians, policy wonks and my
peers who asserted that ever harsher laws and firmer enforcement would turn
back the tide of illegal drugs.

But by the end of my tenure with the LAPD I came to believe that marijuana
-- a drug I had never seen anyone overdose on or influence anyone to do
anything more violent than attack a bag of potato chips -- should be legalized.

I held a bifurcated stance toward illicit drugs -- legalize pot but
strictly enforce existing laws against the rest of the stuff.

As the years passed, however, I saw a nation fighting harder, devoting more
money and jailing increasing numbers of individuals -- all the while
falling further behind in the war on drugs.

The price of the drugs didn't rise with increased interdiction, usage rates
didn't fall, and the number of lives damaged or destroyed by chronic use,
overdose and drug-related criminal activity mounted. No matter how much I
disliked the idea, I became convinced the United States should legalize
illicit drugs.

Interestingly, both my hardiest supporters and my harshest critics come
from the same group: my law-enforcement associates. Many on both sides of
the debate share my views about the futility of the drug war and agree it
carries a substantial downside.

What generally separates those who agree with me from those who don't is
their take on a question they almost invariably put to me: Won't legalizing
drugs lead more people to take them and thus make things worse?

I do not know whether legalizing drugs will increase their popularity. But
I suspect that if we approach legalization thoughtfully and pursue a
sensible post-legalization strategy, then the drug rolls will not swell.
They may in fact decline.

But even if more people do take drugs in the wake of legalization, we would
live in a society where citizens suffer far less from the predatory crimes
spawned by the illicit drug trade.

In the end, we cannot protect free adults from their own poor choices, and
we should not use the force of law to try. In a free society negative
consequences befall people who use their freedom to do foolish things.

Victimless self-destructive behavior is its own punishment, not the
business of the legal system.

Klinger is professor of criminology at the University of Missouri. This
article is adapted from his chapter in the new Cato Institute book, "After
Prohibition: An Adult Approach to Drug Policies in the 21st Century."

Newshawk: Jo-D and Tom-E
Pubdate: Thu, 11 Jan 2001
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2001 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Contact: letters@uniontrib.com
Address: PO Box 120191, San Diego, CA, 92112-0191
Fax: (619) 293-1440
Website: http://www.uniontrib.com/
Forum: http://www.uniontrib.com/cgi-bin/WebX
Author: David Klinger
Note: Klinger is professor of criminology at the University of Missouri.
This article is adapted from his chapter in the new Cato Institute book,
"After Prohibition: An Adult Approach to Drug Policies in the 21st Century."