My previous post was a review of The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. I found the book to be extremely thought provoking, but rather than muddle a book review with my own takeaway, I am writing a separate post. Alexander’s thesis is that the present War on Drugs—the set of laws, sentencing guidelines, police practices, and funding structures—are effectively a new Jim Crow system, that operate to exclude African Americans (especially African American men) from society, condemning many to a life of poverty.

The picture the book portrays of the effect of the drug war is bleak. I am less convinced personally of the racial analysis, because I don’t see that Alexander has controlled carefully for poverty as a factor. Nevertheless, the racial disparities in poverty are indisputable, and the drug enforcement situation is what it is. I can say without reservation that, if a system were desired that would systematically disrupt families and consign entire generations to poverty, the current War on Drugs would fit the bill admirably.

When crack became widespread in the 1980s under Reagan, the move was for harsher penalties: lower thresholds for felonies, longer prison terms for offenders. This continued under Clinton in the 1990s. This has resulted in lengthy prison sentences for many African American men. In some cities, Alexander notes, a majority of African American males have been incarcerated at some point in their lives.

Now speaking personally, when I first heard complaints that African Americans were disproportionately incarcerated, my thought was, “What’s the proposal? To make fewer things illegal?” I asked the question (to myself) ironically, but I now think that it’s a proposal worth considering. Here’s my logic:

Why do we want to eliminate drugs from our society? Because they mess up people’s lives: they cause crime, break up families, keep people from being productive members of society.

What has been the result of the War on Drugs on impoverished communities? Mass incarceration, which: causes crime, breaks up families, and keeps people from being productive members of society.

There is a point at which we must evaluate whether the solution we have been pursuing is not itself producing the very harms we are trying to avoid. What if drugs were legal? How much worse can things get that the results we’re currently getting? I submit that the answer to that question is not obvious.

Or, what if we addressed the drug problem a different way? With economic investment? With education? With jobs programs? Pie in the sky? I honestly don’t know—and nobody does, because we haven’t tried.

Here is a key quote from Alexander:

No one should ever attempt to minimize the harm caused by crack cocaine and the related violence. As David Kennedy correctly observes, “[c]rack blew through America’s poor black neighborhoods like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” leaving behind unspeakable devastation and suffering. As a nation, though, we had a choice about how to respond. Some countries faced with rising drug crime or seemingly intractable rates of drug abuse and drug addiction chose the path of drug treatment, prevention, and education or economic investment in crime-ridden communities.

But here’s the rub: at the federal level, it’s going to be difficult to implement change. That’s because corn farmers in Nebraska and ranchers in Wyoming have just as much say (in fact, proportionately a greater say) than people in urban areas whose lives are affected by the drug war. If I have zero emotional investment in a situation, how much intelligent thought am I going to put into it? (Would you ask me what to do about the drought in California? Would you consult with me about building a new train line out east? No, of course not: I know nothing about those situations, nor do I care enough to even think carefully about them, much less do the research.)

Moreover, how would we ever find out what works? At the federal level we would need decades just to try various alternatives.

(Moreover, as Alexander notes, federal drug enforcement grants create incentives for the police to make drug arrests, which creates perverse financial incentives to lock people up. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to get rid of that system.)

So my proposal is simple: get the federal government out of the drug enforcement business, and let the states experiment.

So on January 1, all federal drug laws disappear. You can bet that by December 31, fifty states will have drug laws in place that match the old federal regulations pretty closely.

But then, the states can begin to experiment. Theoretically libertarians could lead the charge, but realistically it’s going to be a deep blue state in the Northeast. Vermont legalizes all drugs, and then… ?

Maybe it tanks, and we lose Vermont. Maybe it works in Vermont but then doesn’t work in New Jersey. States are different. The point is, states are more nimble than the federal government, and state legislators are going to be held more closely accountable than federal ones.

(My personal prediction: we’ll find out that a certain number of people will use addictive drugs and destroy their lives, just like some people use alcohol to destroy their lives. On the whole, I would predict that drugs alone will destroy fewer lives than drugs and the War on Drugs put together.)

Of course Colorado is sort of trying this out, having legalized marijuana. (Somehow the federal government is letting them do that. I’m not sure the full story.) So far, Colorado seems to be doing all right—but it’s still early enough that I’m glad we’re just trying it out in one state at first.