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Cutting Your Profits

Who says the Drug War is destroying America?

By 6.22.04

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Bad Trip: How the War Against Drugs Is Destroying America
by Joel Miller
(WND Books, 242 pages, $24.99)

Four years ago, Kansas City police seized $6,000 of the cash that Rudy Ramirez brought with him from his home in Texas to buy a used Corvette in Missouri (slightly over $7,000). The reason: They believed he was carrying drugs from Mexico. Even after Ramirez proved that the money was legitimately his -- he gave them documents which revealed (a) that these funds were a settlement from a previous accident and (b) that he had withdrawn the funds from his bank account shortly before, to buy the car -- police kept the money under little-understood provisions of drug forfeiture laws.

Disturbing stories like this one fill Joel Miller's first book, Bad Trip: How the War Against Drugs Is Destroying America. Citing extravagant profits that lead to corruption, Miller says that the money involved in the drug trade is simply too good for both criminals and police to pass up. The war on substances, he says, creates more problems than it solves.

It's plausible. Just think about why illegal drugs cost so much: because drug laws constrict the supply of narcotics, would-be customers must cough up extra cash for the privilege of buying the stuff. And since growing illegal crops costs about as much as growing legal ones, profits are euphoric. That's why farmers in South America grow dope; that's why middlemen smuggle it inside our borders; that's why dealers here sell it. At all points of the supply chain, the money involved beats the risk of getting caught.

The U.S. government has argued, in court and in television and radio commercials, that buying drugs funds terrorism. Miller turns this on its head by saying that the laws, not the drugs, actually plop the money into terrorists' laps. By making such transactions illegal the state has ceded territory to the more shadowy characters of the black market. Since terrorism is, by definition, shadowy, illegal drugs become a steady source of revenue, and lots of it, for people looking to finance, oh, bribery or kidnapping or bombs. Even that call to claim credit has to be paid for somehow.

Remove drugs from the black market, argues Miller, and this goldmine would become more of a coal mine. Legitimate suppliers would move in and thus remove an easy source of cash for terrorists. If the number one goal of the U.S. government is to hurt terrorists, Miller asks, with a libertarian smirk on his face, why not legalize?

UNLIKE SOME VICE ADVOCATES, Miller doesn't suggest going whole hog. He says drugs should be gradually legalized, starting with "soft" drugs like marijuana, and then moving onto harder substances, such as cocaine and heroine. More on this gradualism anon.

Frankly, the thought of legalizing drugs jolted this reviewer's system. I remember the debate a few years ago about legalizing marijuana for "medicinal" use in California. At the time, I wondered what kind of a doctor would actually prescribe pot. As with that debate so with the present work: There are nearly compelling reasons in favor of legalization but then there are the questions.

First, couldn't police corruption be addressed by measures short of legalization? The systematic problem now is that police departments are able to profit from goods or funds seized through assets forfeiture laws. Unlike in a criminal proceeding, the burden of proof is on the person whose property has been confiscated. He must prove that these were not ill-gotten gains and that can be an awfully hard bar to clear. In fact, revenues from assets forfeiture are often built into the budgets of local police departments, so they have to seize so much stuff every year in order to make payroll. This is a bad situation but why not remedy it by changing or repealing forfeiture laws? Why legalize drugs?

Second, the examples of police confiscation and other evils seem compelling, but is the whole picture representative? Or is it more of a cherry-picked caricature of the country's war on illegal substances? Are these the outliers rather than the mean? Miller relies, for the most part, on published, credible sources, but journalists can be spun. Sometimes the "victims" of the war on drugs are less innocent than they make out.

Third, would legalizing really deprive terrorists of funds? Or would they simply move on to supplying other restricted goods, the list of which is nearly endless?

Fourth, what role should government play in private lives? Should it ever step in and say "enough"? Purists may say no but most would admit that the answer to the question is not self-evident.

Miller's gradual legalization may be worth a shot to study the effects. But it would have to be on a very local level and relatively contained. Maybe allow Alaskans to smoke pot and go from there. But, as the last few years' worth of initiative losses show, and Miller recognizes, our country is very far from being willing to legalize drugs. And I'm not so sure that's a bad thing.

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