Defending the Undefendable

A libertarian political economy.

Cut the Murder Rate in New Orleans

An alternative approach

New Orleans is now undergoing an unprecedented murder rate, even for the Big Uneasy. How can we dig our way out of this morass?

The usual suspect solutions have all been tried, have not worked in the past, and will not help us now. According to the conventional wisdom, the way to stop people from shooting at each other is to improve our public schools, promote day care, stop the drug trade with stiffer sentences, start midnight basketball leagues, bring in the social workers, promote religion, subsidize parenting skills, introduce citizenship and ethics classes in high school, this list of ineptitude goes on and on.

These "remedies" are either focused way too far in the long run to be even relevant to our critical short-run problems, or never have addressed and cannot solve such challenges, or are actually counterproductive: exacerbating murder rates, not diminishing them.

So, let us take a deep breath, open our minds, and consider something radical, way off the beaten track: let us legalize drugs, all of them without exception, preeminently including marijuana, cocaine, and, yes, heroin. (Legalization is sharply to be distinguished from favoring the use of these substances, something I strongly oppose.)

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What does this have to do with the gigantic number of murders now afflicting New Orleans? Plenty. An inordinate amount of these episodes consists of drug dealers shooting each other in turf wars. End the prohibition, and this viciousness stops right in its tracks. Nor are these murders likely to end any time soon. Things of this sort were kept down to a dull roar before Katrina. A sort of equilibrium was attained. Every gang knew its place, at least roughly. "Property rights" in street corners and back alleyways were semi-established. Yes, from time to time there was a bit of blood letting, as criminals served their sentences and tried to reclaim what used to be "their" territory, or, as dealers were killed or retired, and mini-wars broke out until the new pecking order was established.

But then came the failure of the levees. "Our" dealers tried to set up shop in Houston, Memphis, Atlanta and other such refuges. The local denizens did not appreciate that one bit. Conflagrations broke out there. Then, as the Crescent City began to repopulate, heroin entrepreneurs began trickling back along with these crowds. Paradoxically, this increased crime in the temporary refuge cities from which these gangsters were emigrating, and also in New Orleans as they arrived back here. For both the egress and ingress set up jurisdictional disputes over turf, and the battle lines were drawn again and again in blood. This inflated murder rate will only recede to pre-Katrina levels, which were horrible enough in that bygone era, when post-Hurricane movement of population slows down to previous levels. That point may not be reached for decades.

It is thus time, it is past time, to drain the swamps instead of following our present policy of fighting the alligators. Legalizing addictive drugs, every last one of them, will stop all this gang warfare for sure, and immediately.

Why? If marijuana, heroin, etc., were legal, it would be sold in ordinary legitimate stores such as pharmacies. These would replace the present fly-by-night murderous operators. Customers would simply rather purchase brand name cocaine, replete with labels, money back guarantees in case of defective products, as in the case of all other consumption goods. Standard business ventures have a comparative advantage over hoodlums whose only specialty resides in violence.

When alcohol was prohibited (1920-1933) gangs fought it out in the streets with machine guns for the right to sell their bathtub gin. Innocent bystanders were killed in the cross fire, just as at present. Backwoods stills killed still more, with their battery acid products. Nowadays, peace reigns in this industry. Johnny Walker and Four Roses compete with each other not with bullets, but in terms of the traditional commercial aspects of price, advertising, availability, quality, reputation, etc. The Mafia is no longer involved. No one dies, no one, in the creation, manufacture, wholesaling, distribution, transportation, retailing of this product. For similar reasons, the same beneficial effects will ensue when, and as soon as, we legalize drugs.

But will we not die like flies from these addictive substances once they are legalized? There is no more reason to think so than to believe that when the prohibition of booze ended, it encouraged an orgy of drunkenness. Pretty much the same people who liquored up before 1920 did so after 1933, and there is every reason to believe that drug legalization would follow the same path. Those who now abuse drugs will still likely continue to do so. Is there anyone, now, who refrains from their use simply because they are illegal? Yes both drugs and alcohol will remain medical problems post-legalization, but the crime will be eradicated from both.

So far, I have attempted to show that the last best hope for our city in eliminating the scourge of murders presently besetting us was to legalize drugs. Why? Because a disproportionate number of these capital crimes take place between drug gangs fighting over turf, and the innocents caught in the cross fire. Legalize heroin, cocaine and marijuana, and such conflagrations will immediately cease, as they did when alcohol prohibition was ended in 1933. I now wish to consider, and reject, several objections to this very sensible plan.

1. If people drive while under the influence of drugs, the enormous increase in traffic fatalities will more than offset any saving of lives due to the elimination of murderous wars over drug turf.

Not so, not so. Drugs can be treated in roughly the same manner as alcohol. It is legal to use the latter product, but not to drive while intoxicated. In like manner, it would no longer be a crime to erase brain cells with heroin, but it would be if you then get behind the wheel of a car.

2. This plan to legalize drugs would give a social imprimatur to abuse such substances. Children would be led to try them.

No, no, no. One cannot infer approval from mere legalization of an act or substance. Abortion, gambling, prostitution, alcohol, homosexuality and other victimless (ex)crimes are no longer criminal offences in civilized societies, but the attitude of society toward them is one of strict neutrality, not approval. Right now, addictive drugs have about them the lure of the forbidden; youngsters are more likely to be tempted by them. Under legalization, no drug purveyors would hang around school yards, as they now do, and try to get kids to try their deleterious wares.

3. Drug legalization would empty the city to an even greater degree than at present

There is one added benefit to New Orleans from implementing such a proposal: we will have gained for ourselves a new bouncing baby industry. Just as Las Vegas evolved from a stretch of desert into a world-class city when it was the only one to offer gambling, so will the Big Easy surpass its previous preeminence (it was once the leading city in the entire South) when it alone offers legal drugs. This industry all by itself, will put us back on the map.

4. The state and federal courts will not allow New Orleans, all on its own, to declare itself a free enterprise zone in this regard. So, even if legalization would radically reduce our local murder rate, we will not be allowed to implement it.

Right now, like it or not, we are a tremendous burden on the rest of the state, and indeed the country. We could do far better on our own than with our palms up, begging for charity. As well, the federales owe us big. The flooding was the fault of their Army Corp of Engineers that built the porous levies. It was their FEMA that added insult to injury in Katrina's aftermath, by preventing others from rescuing us, while doing nothing much on its own in this regard. It would come with particular ill grace for them to object to a plan that would, one, stop this horrid spate of murders cold in its tracks, and two, put us back on our feet, economically speaking.

5. But is it not scurrilous to be associated with such a product? New Orleans as the drug capital of the country is something that would disgrace us.

I answer that it is far more debilitating to take on our present role as the murder capital of the country, on a per capita basis. Would you rather have blood running in the streets?

6. The Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 was implemented for a good purpose: to save ourselves from the scourge of drugs.

Has it succeeded? To ask this question is to answer it. People can purchase addictive substances in any major city in the country. No, this "war" has failed, like so many other such initiatives undertaken by government. The motivation behind this legislation had nothing to do with protecting the public in any case. It was pure and simple a racist anti-Chinese measure, in an attempt to criminalize them for using opium dens.

7. We are on the verge of winning the drug war. This is not the time to "cut and run."

The drug war is an utter and abysmal failure. And necessarily so. Every time a successful interdiction occurs, drug prices and profits rise, and this only strengthens the drug gangs. They are impregnable to such tactics.

New Orleans, Mayor Nagin, should we consider an ironically safer alternative approach to crime prevention? We have only to lose our title as a place where people are shot down in cold blood en masse.

Walter Block, Ph.D., is Harold E. Wirth Endowed Chair and Prof. of Economics, College of Business, Loyola University New Orleans, and the author of Defending the Undefendable.

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