Sunday, August 7, 2011


I recently watched the movie Serpico for the first time since it came out in 1973.  A brief description for those who haven't seen the movie: it's a dramatization of the true story of Frank Serpico, a New York policeman who tried to avoid the police corruption he saw around him, and was rebuffed when he tried to report what had witnessed to the higher echelons of the police force.

What struck me was that, while I remembered the basic story and situations, I had forgotten the particular crime that Serpico's unit was combating: it was the numbers game, the private lottery that was illegal (and I suppose still is) in New York.   At the time, there was a large underground lottery system, with counting houses, banks, and runners.  That's all gone away now: the numbers racket has been superseded by the state lottery.

Which made me think to myself: what a waste.  If the lottery is benign enough to be run by the state, why can't it be run privately? (With proper oversight and protection of the public against fraud, of course.)  What a waste of police resources that could have been used to prevent real crime.  What a waste of people's lives when they are imprisoned just for providing a service that is wanted by the public.  And also, it's just this sort of victimless "criminal" activity that is a fertile field for the corruption that so dismayed Frank Serpico.

If one looks back to the 1920s, one can see a similar waste of resources and ruining of lives (as well as the rise of organized crime families) in the enforcement of prohibition.

And today the same dynamic is being played out in the enforcement of drug laws.  Just as there was no really good reason to outlaw lotteries and alcohol, there is no really good reason to outlaw the more harmless drugs like marijuana, and even the mildly harmful like cocaine.  Again, I see the waste of resources and the ruining of lives (one reason the US has proportionately more people in prison than any other country is the enforcement of drug laws, along with convictions for the ancillary criminal activities that arise out drug trafficking), but other serious consequences as well.  The demand for cocaine in this country has devastated Colombian society, and US demand for marijuana has led to astonishing levels of violence in Mexico.  Yet I see no acknowledgement from our elected representatives of the havoc they are causing both in this country and in others by our wrongheaded insistence on passing and enforcing laws against some people's choice of recreation.

Yes, there is some danger in taking drugs, and serious abuse can be ruinous to some individuals' health.  The same can be said of tobacco and alcohol - yet we have never criminalized tobacco, and admit that criminalizing alcohol was a mistake.  Our drug laws simply make no sense.

I'm reasonably sure that at some future time marijuana, and perhaps other drugs, will be legal.  And future generations will be looking back at us and wondering: why such a waste?  So if only they'd ask me - I'd say repeal the drug laws. (And think of the money now wasted we'd save by eliminating the DEA - money that could be put to productive rather than destructive uses.)

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