Would you be surprised to know that in 2014, there were 14.8 Americans in 100,000 who had fatal drug overdoses? Putting this into perspective, America’s infamous high homicide rate is about 5 per 100,000. Jim Geraghty of NRO ran an essay by Robert VerBruggen, editor of RealClearPolicy, on how he is rethinking his long-held perspective that all drugs should be legal.
I was never so naive as to think there would be no increase in drug use or abuse if drugs were legal. But I did think legalization would easily pass a practical cost-benefit test: reduce incarceration, if perhaps not as much as some might think; end an illegal market whose violence spills far beyond our borders; and expand personal freedom, all for the acceptable price of an extra overdose or other health problem here and there, plus maybe some extra property crimes by addicts stealing to feed their habit.
Drug addiction couldn’t go up that much. The War on Drugs is an utter failure and drugs are widely and cheaply available anyway. Everyone knows that.
Well, reality is not lining up with this view of the world. In 1999, Americans had fatal drug overdoses at a rate of 6 per 100,000. In 2014, that number stood at 14.8 per 100,000 — a rise of 8.8 per 100,000. To put this in perspective, America’s famously high homicide rate is about 5 per 100,000. And the overdose spike is apparently driven by a policy change much gentler than full legalization.
The general consensus seems to be that in recent decades, doctors started taking patients’ pain more seriously, and thus began prescribing opioid painkillers more generously. Some patients became addicted; others got medications they didn’t need and sold them. (It appears that most addicts are not getting their drugs directly from a doctor.) Efforts to clamp down on this problem may have had an effect on painkiller overdose deaths — there was a dip in 2012 and 2013 — but 2014 saw another record high. Many addicts are switching to heroin, another opioid with a staggering and growing death toll.
As Mr. Geraghty notes in the Morning Jolt email, “I’ve written in the past from a wary perspective about marijuana legalization. I have no shortage of more libertarian-minded friends who find me an old fuddy-duddy on this. The argument denouncing the expansion of government, runaway expenses, and limited results of the War on Drugs is a pretty clear and compelling one. The case for decriminalization of marijuana – i.e., not putting somebody in prison over it — is pretty persuasive as well. But if you legalize something, you are likely to get more of it. (The potential for legal troubles, and or the stigma of criminal behavior, likely deter at least some portion of potential users.) We can argue whether the country would be a better or worse place with more marijuana users.”
Perhaps a teary-eyed President Obama should use his executive actions to focus on Americans’ drug overdose rather than on reining in gun buying while chipping away at America’s 2nd Amendment rights. Read more from Mr. VerBruggen here.