Drug Decriminalization is Less Far-Fetched Than It Seems, Lawmakers Say

When economist Jeffrey Miron from the libertarian think tank Cato Institute released a study on July 23, 2018, he highlighted the budgetary gains that could come from legalizing all drugs. Headlines focused on the eye-popping dollar amounts in the report, “The Budgetary Effects of Ending Drug Prohibition:”

Many outlets, including this one, also squirmed at the report’s suggestion that heroin and cocaine also be legalized, a bold statement coming from an organization with deeply conservative roots. The Cato Institute has alternately been funded by or been feuding with the Koch brothers, who support many conservative and libertarian political causes. The idea of legal drugs seemed to run counter to all what conservatives hold dear.

Yet the legalization of all drugs isn’t such a radical notion to a Democratic member of Maryland’s House of Delegates, Dan Morhaim.  For Morhaim, decriminalizing drugs is practical, mainstream politics — a position he’s held since the beginning of his political career.

“When I ran for office the first time, I ran on this issue. The first bill I put in on the [availability of substance abuse programs] was in 1998, long before this was the issue. And I never presented it as progressive,” Morhaim told Marijuana.com. “I presented it as practical.”

Morhaim, a practicing physician, author, and state legislator, clarified that he isn’t in favor of policies that could lead to substance abuse. But when analyzing Miron’s drug prohibition report, he also sees the United States’ ineffective approach to drug criminalization and its lack of meaningful progress in decreasing substance abuse and the supply of drugs.  

“There’s more people in jail, more crimes, more death, more disease, expense to taxpayers, expense to businesses, terror for communities, corruption,” Morhaim said. “There’s not one data measure that you can say has been improved. I can’t find it.”

Neither can West Chicago, Illinois, Mayor Pro Tem Lori Chassee, a former senior criminal investigator in the DuPage County State’s Attorney’s Office who has worked on undercover narcotics investigations.

“Murder rate convictions have gone down significantly. Robberies are up, violent crimes are up,” said Chassee. In 2017, the Chicago Police Department solved 114 of 650 murders committed that year — the lowest rate since at least 1990, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.  

While the politics in Miron’s report may be complicated, for progressives like Morhaim and Chassee, the fiscal benefits highlighted by the conservative think tank’s report are clear.

“Information that the Cato Institute has provided, it has its own perspectives, some of which I tend to agree with, much of it which I don’t, at least in this regard I appreciate their financial analysis of this,” Morhaim said. “From the Cato Institute perspective, this saves a lot of money. I guess that’s a conservative perspective, traditionally.”

The conservative perspective doesn’t necessarily align with a liberal viewpoint, but both sides find compelling the report’s argument that public health would improve and violent crime would decrease.  

“I think if you only talk about the finances, you’re going to get hit by the negative,” said Chassee. “People are going to ask, ‘Do we want to take money from the devil?’”

Nixon’s Drug War is a Hamster-Wheel Approach to Decreasing Drug Use. It Didn’t Work.  

In a Cato Institute blog post supporting Miron’s piece, researcher Jonathan Blanks referenced a study in Police Quarterly that found states that legalized marijuana allowed police to better solve other cases. Blanks ties the Police Quarterly data and findings in Miron’s report together as evidence that “ if the government ends the drug war, it frees up police resources to solve other crimes and perform other functions more necessary to public well-being than prosecuting drug crimes.” That’s a notion that Cato and pro-legalization advocates have been saying for years.   

Any mention of drug legalization can be polarizing, especially with more addictive drugs like cocaine and heroin. Yet the Cato report found that “the majority of budgetary gains would likely come from” legalizing cocaine and heroin.

Morhaim explained the difficulty with the idea of legalization, or using the word “legalizing,” in context with cocaine and heroin. People get the implication that heroin would be sold openly on the street corner, and “ that becomes a non-starter to have a conversation.” When presented on its own, or just with the fiscal benefits, drug legalization strikes most citizens as immoral and destructive.

“I think part of the disconnect has solely to do with politics and image,” Chassee said. “If you talk to most legislators across the board their belief of the electorate is that they are undereducated and unwilling to change. Therefore, they play to the lowest common denominator.”

This largely has to do with, as Blanks’ blog post mentions, the war on drugs, and its political and cultural influence in the moralization of drugs.

“When I was young and first in law enforcement, you sort of buy into marijuana being a gateway drug,” said Chassee. “So you go into it thinking ‘Drugs are horrible, they’re killing our kids. We have all this money to fight this war. To fight this pariah that is killing our children.’”

“The war on drugs is a policy failure,” Morhaim said. “I think that’s very clear to me and becoming increasingly clear to many other people.”

“You know, this whole war on drugs, nobody has educated the public on the original intent,” said Chassee. “Nobody really understands where it came from. It came from Richard Nixon.”

But Morhaim knows the original intent of the war on drugs — and he’s heard it firsthand.

In a report for Harper’s Magazine, Morhaim spoke with John Ehrlichman, President Nixon’s domestic-policy advisor and Watergate co-conspirator about the politics of drug prohibition. In that 1994 interview,  Ehrlichman introduced the drug war history with little more than a shrug:

“You want to know what this is really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.”

The effects of Nixon’s political play are still felt today.

“And [Nixon] pointed everyone in the wrong direction. The goals were to reduce the supply, increase the price,” Chassee said. “It’s done exactly the opposite. It’s increased the supply, decreased the cost.”

Morhaim’s article in Harper’s concluded that “even the Drug Enforcement Administration concedes that the drugs it fights are becoming cheaper and more easily available.”

Chassee calls the approach a “hamster wheel” because law enforcement spends an exorbitant amount of money to prosecute substance abusers and low-level dealers who are quickly replaced in the drug supply chain, only to ensure that those prosecuted will end up right where they started.

“I think that we’ve found that time and time again after the expense of significant resources you get a mid or high-level player, and like cockroaches scattering when you turn the lights on, they’re instantly replaced,” Chassee said. Not only is the hamster wheel approach ineffective, it’s retrograde.

“All enforcement does is magnify the likelihood that that person will fall back into a life of drugs,” she said. “Because once you’re convicted, you’re convicted forever. You become less hirable, less desirable as a rentee. All of those financial pressures are put on people when released from prison. And when they can’t make ends meet, they fall back into old habits.”

Morhaim puts it bluntly when he says “criminalizing the possession of drugs simply isn’t working.” He’s matter of fact, almost bewildered when speaking about the continuation of the drug war. “I mean, we’ve been doing it for 70 years and nothing is better. In fact, everything is worse.”

Consumption Facilities, Community and the Road to Rehabilitation.

The drug war’s hamster-wheel approach has a tremendous cost to society. The Cato report puts that cost at $106 billion annually. Chassee and Morhaim see this report as evidence that it is time to find new approaches.

Of those approaches, the idea of supervised consumption facilities is among the most crucial. Morhaim is the first state legislator in the U.S. to put forth a bill to authorize consumption programs.

“I try to stick to things that are data-based proven, like supervised consumption facilities,” said Morham, citing a Johns Hopkins University study and Portugal’s approach to drug decriminalization as examples.

Chassee also sees the merits of allowing individuals to consume controlled substances in a safe and sterile treatment center. “If we support those people through an addiction-eradication process, what they’re seeing in other countries is that those people can have jobs, can be contributing members of society while they’re going through the process to become non-addicts,” Chassee said.

“It’s clear, at least historically, that many people can lead productive lives and be on maintenance levels of drugs,” Morhaim said.

Morhaim and Chassee said that providing a strong cycle of social support and a rehabilitation system for people suffering from the disease of addiction, rather than treating them with incarceration and conviction, is how the United States provides a path to improving some of our largest issues, including the war on drugs and the opioid crisis.

Morhaim believes the process will be long, but he’s hopeful. “We’ve been digging this hole for 70 to 100 years. It’s going to take a few years to climb out of the hole,” Morhaim said. “It’s going to be step by step with different strategies and different things that we’ll learn from as we go.”

When asked what the next steps should be in the aftermath of the Cato Institute report, Chassee said, “It’s all an educational process.

“If we say, ‘This is the money we’re going to make, this is how we’re going to spend it, these are the programs we’re going to use to fight addiction to fight the opioid crisis, to lessen cocaine addiction. These are the educational programs we’re going to build with these profits.’ It just needs to be said, and re-said, and re-said.”

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