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I’m generally sympathetic to the idea of ramping down the drug war in the west.  I grant that drug use is, for the most part, a victimless crime; that the drug war is very expensive; and that it empowers criminal organizations that do really bad things.  An end result of legalized, regulated, taxed drugs and weakened criminal organizations sounds good.  But I suspect it will be very hard to get there, and that carefree attempts to do so will backfire horribly.

Consider Connor Friedersdorf, framing costs of the drug war:

Would you rather legalize most drugs… or see the equivalent carnage of four 9/11s happen every year from fighting the black market? That isn’t a hypothetical. It’s a real choice…Would you rather legalize drugs…or risk that the sort of violence seen in Mexico will spread into the United States, corrupting our police departments, and ravaging our cities? Perhaps that won’t ever happen. But if you’re confident that it won’t happen I would like to know why.

I’m not confident that Mexican drug violence and corruption won’t spread to the United States.  It’s a real risk, and I favor policies designed to minimize it.  Having said that, I think the actors most likely to cause this spread are existing criminal organizations.  I think the best way to encourage existing criminal organizations to do so is to piss them off.  And I think the best way to piss them off is to cut off their revenue stream, by legalizing drugs.  I worry that Friedersdorf is advocating a policy that will result in the bad consequences he want to avoid.

What drug legalization advocates want to do, is to go back in time and stop the drug war before it started, thereby preventing criminal organizations from growing as strong as they have.  But given that these organizations do exist, it’s irresponsible to assume they’ll happily wither away when drugs are legalized.  The net effects of drug legalization in the West are highly dependent on how powerful criminal organizations respond, and I’ve seen little analysis trying to address this question.

I can vaguely imagine peaceful resolutions, wherein the illicit drug market shifts to a licit drug market; criminal organizations transition into lawful corporations; and corrupt governments transition into less corrupt governments.  (This process doesn’t seem tremendously different from the evolution of many American cities.)

I can also imagine terrible results, wherein powerful criminal organizations plot terrorist attacks designed to shift American public opinion back towards favoring drug criminalization.  How hard would it be for the Sinaloa cartel to orchestrate a drug-induced killing spree at the Mall of America?  How many times would this need to happen to “prove” that drug legalization is bad policy?

Drug legalization advocates have not begun to recognize the severity of this problem.

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