Legalizing Drugs and Deviancy

The nation's chief health officer, Joycelyn Elders, has shot herself in the foot again. Or has she? Was her proposal to legalize drugs a wild shot-or a calculated strategy to stimulate a national debate? That much she has certainly accomplished. Washington, D.C., officials solemnly announced it was time to study the problem. Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke praised Elders in an interview on the White House lawn. Columnist Bill Buckley reiterated his long-standing support for legalization. On the surface, the case for legalization sounds appealing. But if I have earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records, it is for being in more prisons than anyone else: 600 prisons in 35 countries. And I have news for Joycelyn Elders: Legalizing drugs is not the pragmatic panacea it appears to be. Proponents say if drugs are legalized, prices will plummet and users will no longer steal to feed their habit. Possibly. But a reduction in one type of crime would be matched by an increase in others: As drug use increases in response to legalization, so will the crimes committed in a drug-induced stupor. On the supply side, proponents say reduced profits will drive dealers out of business. But as political scientist Edward Banfield points out, a small percentage of the population forms a permanent criminal class-a group that turns to crime for "fun and profit." Close down the drug market and criminals will find other illegal markets. Remember that organized crime is organized for crime, not drugs. I served a portion of my prison sentence with a Mafia king, who confessed he didn't really like dealing drugs because of their harmful effects on young people. "But it's a business," he said with a shrug. "We make good profits." Then again, he mused, "we made good profits in the numbers business, too. When I get out maybe I'll go back to that instead." For him, crime was a business-and any business would do. But, to use Banfield's phrase again, crime is pursued for fun as well as profit. Anyone who has worked with criminals knows they are often attracted to adventure, danger, thrills. These are the same people who, if they go straight, take up hang gliding or mountain climbing. Decriminalize drugs, and they'll find other illegal thrills. The final argument for legalization is the old shibboleth that you can't legislate morality. But the truth is that every law legislates morality. Through law, a society expresses its convictions about what is right and wrong, moral and immoral. Legalization would sanction drug use: Instead of solving the problem, it would redefine crime as acceptable. And why stop with drugs? Street violence is equally difficult to control. Should we legalize it? What about sex crimes? Carry that logic far enough, and we can eliminate crime altogether. The ultimate issue at stake is our legal philosophy. Is law a moral teacher? Or is it merely a flexible arrangement whereby we condone any behavior we find inconvenient to restrain? The latter seems to be the view of Joycelyn Elders. But I submit that it is not only a moral surrender, it is also an invitation to social chaos.


Chuck Colson


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