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While prohibition never worked with alcohol, and legalization of soft drugs seeming more and more acceptable to the general public, there are clearly plenty of examples of cases in which prohibition works.

For example, it's illegal to steal and I don't think there is any strong support for the legalization of stealing... or to make a different and less extreme example, there is little support for the legalization of driving under the influence.

What is the difference between legalizing a drug and legalizing a different criminal behaviour? Why is the former considered better than prohibition but not so the second?

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  • 12
    One it's a crime against someone, the other is a victimless crime. If you drive under the effect of alcohol or drug, you can harm someone other than you so it became a true crime. Victimless crimes are usually a way to impose a moral by the State. Some examples? Death penalty for homosexuals in Iran or immigration-related crimes. Here some libertarians points of view on the matter.
    – chirale
    Dec 24 '12 at 12:12
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    This seems like something of an opinion-based question to me Apr 22 '14 at 4:41
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    @SamIam I disagree, the question does not call for speculation: "what is the difference" is factual and "why is x considered better than y" is asking to report what are the political scientists' stances on the matter. Neither of them is asking for the personal opinion of the answerers.
    – Sklivvz
    Apr 22 '14 at 8:13
  • Many libertarian minded people view taxation (for purposes of wealth transfer) as nothing more than organized armed robbery/extortion; so stating that "there is [no] strong support for the legalization of stealing" is wrong if you take that point of view and popularity of wealth redistribution through taxes
    – user4012
    Apr 22 '14 at 14:37
  • @Sklivvz Your question can be assumed to be not opinion based if it focused completely on the difference between drugs and another specific behavior. But that is not the case. Apr 22 '14 at 15:29
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There are four main reasons people support legalization of drugs but not other behavior:

  1. Many people feel that drugs are "victimless" behavior, and as such, are not a crime

    An interesting analogy would be that it's not a crime to gamble away one's money, if you are comparing stealing material property to drugs; state lotteries are legal even in places that supposedly prohibit gambling.

    Please note that there is a (smaller) group of people who are very nuanced about this: they wish to combine legalizing the consumption of drugs itself, BUT at the same time, strongly increase penalties for any other crimes or even misdemeanours that may endanger other people, such as DUI ( my own personal proposal would be to exchange legalizing drugs for declaring DUI to be fully legally treated as attempted murder and any victims resulting from DUI as premeditated actual/attempted murder).

  2. Second reason is purely practical.

    Prohibition Just Doesn't Work. Period. It doesn't matter why, but it's been proven repeatedly that it does not. Prohibiting a random crime X usually works to stop it from happening in most cases (e.g. stealing). Prohibiting addictive substance consumption does NOT.

    To quote an famous adage (I heard it attributed to Swedish King Gustav Adolf), "don't pass laws you can not enforce". In other words, it doesn't matter if the law has a good rationale - if you can not enforce it, you merely sabotage the legitimacy of the government, to no good end.

    The prestige of government has undoubtedly been lowered considerably by the Prohibition law. For nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced. It is an open secret that the dangerous increase of crime in this country is closely connected with this. – Albert Einstein

  3. It is well known that prohibition of addictive substances in practice usually leads to increased crime and strengthening of organized criminal organization, especially in democracies. Prohibition is what allowed American gangsters to flourish; drug laws is what allowed drug cartels AND gangs to flourish in the second half of 20th century.

    This is fairly obvious - when you prohibit something, you drive up the price, especially if it's an addictive substance which ensures unceasing demand. Since the substance is prohibited, you also dramatically decrease the pool of suppliers, providing those suppliers with a lot of funding. And, since it's illegal, your suppliers will not simply be criminals, but usually the worst ones (due to lucrativity) and the most ruthless and well organized ones.

    Ergo, you just took your worst criminal organization and handed them what is in essence an unlimited source of funding and unlimited reason to use violence to protect that source.

  4. This one is just a corollary of #1/#2/#3 - legalizing drugs brings fiscal and economic benefits to the state where prohibition does the opposite.

    The argument, on the surface, is fairly simple cost-benefit analysis:

    Prohibition: Your costs include the loss of taxes on an economic activity that is driven underground; the economic losses of extra-high costs going abroad; the costs of law enforcement/judiciary; the costs of incarceration; the economic losses on having productive population incarcerated; and the second effect costs of strengthened organized crime.

    Legalization: You have the economic costs of addicted people who can't participate in the economy and have to be treated (but many of those people are just as afflicted under Prohibition); you have economic costs of people hurting other people while under the influence such as DUI (but as noted above, that can be easily addressed by enhanced anti-DUI legislation).

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DVK's answer is really great but too focused for this question, I think, so I'd like to add this more general statement, which I feel it better addresses the question itself.

You are comparing two completely different things.

Drinking alcohol or using drugs doesn't directly harm anyone other than yourself. It may cause you to commit other crimes, but those are things which already are crimes anyway.

Stealing, on the other hand, harms the original owner of the stolen object, since he doesn't have that object any more.

Hence, it is perfectly logic to never ban actions which don't directly damage other people, while keeping banning those who do.

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  • But then the same can be said for cocaine. There's a moral question as well that's not being addressed.
    – Shahar
    Apr 21 '14 at 22:35
  • @Shahar yes, the same can be said for a lot of drugs...and often is. It's a somewhat arbitrary line between what we deem to be legal drugs vs. illegal drugs. The moral question tends to just make that line even more arbitrary.
    – user1530
    Apr 22 '14 at 4:57
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    @Shahar and that's fine. As long as you only damage yourself, your loss. If you damage other people things, it's already a crime anyway. The only real issue with drugs is where you have public healthcare, so basically you would waste taxpayer money if you become addict.
    – o0'.
    Apr 22 '14 at 9:19
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"While prohibition never worked with alcohol.."

This is incorrect. During prohibition most people followed the law and did not drink alcohol. We know this because the death rate for alcohol poisoning sky rocketed when the ban was lifted. Did some people not follow the law? Of course. That is true of every law, though.

Why was alcohol illegal? To protect women and children. It was a movement among women who didn't have control over family finances to force their husbands to be better husbands and fathers. Alcohol costs a lot of money out of a family budget and causes domestic violence.

Why was it made legal? Because making it illegal caused serious crime. Making the mob very wealthy is more detrimental to society than having some bad fathers who drink too much. Also, alcohol was popular. Most people like to have a drink from time to time and they aren't abusing their families. This is a democracy, so if we like to do something, and its constitutional, it should be legal.

Why are drugs illegal? Same reasons. To protect other people from the actions of addicts. When someone becomes addicted, they don't take care of their families because they can't. People who are high all the time may not make sure their child has their homework finished or go to the grocery store as often or keep the house as clean. Rarely, they may even commit crimes against strangers, but mostly they are just bad friends and parents. There is no law against being a crummy friend or family member, but it still hurts other people. Addiction is very hard to treat, as well. So making the drugs illegal prevents people from even experimenting.

Why would legalizing it be better than legalizing theft or murder? The laws against murder and probably grand theft to a large degree, don't prevent these actions. They provide punishment to offenders so that those that are harmed will get justice. If these actions were not illegal, the victims or there families would seek justice outside the justice system and more people would be hurt. People don't feel the need to violently suppress consistent pot use, since as I said before the main effect is crummy personal relationships, so this is a false comparison.

Why would legalizing it be better than legalizing drunk driving? The laws against drunk driving are a form of regulation of drug use. The intention of the law is to allow alcohol to be legal, while mitigating its most negative effects. Most proponents of drug legalization, although not all and its difficult to generalize, think some regulation is beneficial. For example, laws that prohibit sale to children or laws regulating purity of the substances being sold, as is already the case with alcohol. Again, I think this asks the wrong question.

Why would we want to make drugs legal, especially pot? First, because they can be regulated and that works. People will follow a drug regulation law, such as one against drunk driving, so there is no need for it to be completely illegal. With regulation most of the harmful effects are mitigated and people can enjoy their favorite drug.

Two, as with alcohol, making it illegal caused serious crime and made serious criminals very rich. Pot is much less harmful than alcohol, but making it illegal caused just as much serious crime.

Three, pot is a popular drug. Most people try pot sometime in their life, even if they aren't consistent users. This means most people are committing a felony. It's simply bad jurisprudence to make a common offense a felony.

Four, crummy parents aren't made better parents by being in prison. Many children in the US grow up without one or both parents because they are in prison for a pot conviction. Having no parents is far worse than having ones that are relatively not ideal. Therefore the law does not actually improve the lives of children and is counterproductive in its intent.

TL; DR

There are other laws against "victimless crimes," such as prostitution, but these atleast don't harm the group they are intended to help (women), gambling (families), truancy and trespassing (property owners), ect. I think this is the main difference.

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