However, narcotics prohibition, like alcohol prohibition before it, has brought forth blood. As part of the drug war, the U.S. condemns up to 400,000 people each year to endure the brutalizing conditions of our prisons. The American death toll in the drug war over a five year span exceeds the number of U.S. casualties in either of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Worse, over a similar span, deaths in Mexico as a consequence of our drag war were in the neighborhood of 45,000 people. The death toll is also high in the many other Central and South American nations affected by our drug war. Narcotics prohibition has failed. Too many have died for too little benefit. Some other way forward, whether decriminalization or legalization, must be found.
There are some arguments, rooted in a libertarian conception of self-ownership, that the state ought to legalize any consensual behavior and let people destroy themselves as they wish. That is not Aquinas' argument, and it is not mine. We do not, in the end, own ourselves. We are God's. If narcotics prohibition worked, it would be a legitimate exercise of the state's authority to bring us to virtue. As a prudential matter, however, we should note that it has not worked.
If narcotics are to be legalized, they will still have the capacity to addict us, to distort our minds, and ultimately to wreck our bodies and leave us dead. The state may and should continue to discourage their use, even if they are legalized. Heavy sin taxes, of the sort discussed here yesterday, should be laid upon any legal narcotics.
As in the failure of the strategy of prohibition, so in the question of how to treat the prohibited substance once it is legal, the example of alcohol is instructive. Tim Heffernan's very important recent article "Last Call" in the Washington Monthly describes the carefully calibrated system of local taxes and (admittedly irritating) local blue laws that have grown up in these United States since the 21st Amendment, in ending Prohibition, returned the regulation of alcohol not to a single, all-too-efficient centralized national bureaucracy, but to the idiosyncratic regulatory regimes of states, counties, and cities. This organically complex, nettlesomely byzantine web of local regulation has stopped the American alcohol market from getting too easy for giant alcohol distributors to rationalize--where rationalization is a euphemism for shareholder profit derived from getting more drunks addicted as cheaply as possible. Heffernan's article compares this American success to the centralized, "rationalized" regulation of alcohol in Britain, where "lager louts" have returned Britain to Hogarthian scenes of violently drunken dystopia.
In short, because it has been a failure, prudence counsels that human law's attempt to prohibit any and all consumption of narcotics must end. But because it is right and just for the state to lead us to virtue, any legalized narcotics must be subject to heavy sin taxes, and enmeshed in an organic web of local regulations.
Lastly, as Christians, we must remember that treatment and counseling for addicts' addictions is a work of mercy to which we are called. We must give up on Prohibition, but we must never give up on our brothers and sisters who are addicted to narcotics.