In a large South American country, a farmer looks out from his veranda over his two main crops. On the right side of the rutted dirt, row upon row of coffee are growing in the high mountain air. To the left, coca grows in equally ordered rows. Both crops require tending, and both require some degree of processing to yield roasted coffee beans on one side, processed cocaine on the other.
Both are transported to the United States. In addition to the shipping expenses, the coffee requires the payment of various tariffs, while the coca shipments are accompanied by gangs, bribes, guns, and related violence, to the extent that some towns in Northern Mexico are “owned” by drug cartels. Coffee arrives on US grocery shelves at $6 to
$12 a pound. Cocaine arrives at $20,000 to $44,000 a pound. (and is cut for street distribution).
The pharmacological effects of coffee and cocaine — unlike alcohol — generally do not lead to the commission of crimes. It is the extremely high value of cocaine that results in crime. Drug dealers are associated with murder, kidnapping, taking over towns, drive-by shootings, money laundering, violence against law enforcement, and more. Drug users and addicts, in order to be able to afford the costly drug, commit crimes including car-jackings, burglaries,
robberies, and thefts of all varieties. (In 32 years of criminal
defense practice, I have never encountered a turf-war involving
coffee). Snitches are sometimes killed. Mules (who smuggle illegal
drugs) die from many causes ranging from homicide to accidental overdoses when the balloons in their bodies burst unexpectedly.
The price of coke is so high because it is illegal. If the government did not create and support the artificially high street price of
cocaine, the cocaine-associated crime would disappear. I should
also mention that on the other side of the world, the growing, harvesting, and processing of poppies into heroin is controlled by the Taliban. This illegal drug provides a major source of funding for worldwide terrorist activities. Easy legal availability of these drugs might increase the number of users and addicts. The resulting public health problem, though unfortunate, would be accompanied by a marked reduction in violent crimes that claim innocent victims.
Today, some of those found guilty of various drug crimes such as
possession and sale go to prison at a cost of $30,000 a year or so.
Minorities are disproportionately turned into non-voting felons who, once out of prison, will have trouble getting jobs for the rest of
their lives. Many owe thousands of dollars that they cannot afford
to the attorneys they hired to defend their drug case. I am among
the majority of defense attorneys who would happily forego the fees associated with drug-crime defense as a consequence of legalization.
Given the choice between having illegal drug users presenting a public health issue, or providing funding for violence—gang violence or terrorist violence—we should be electing to deal with the public
health issue. A further benefit of legalization and regulation:
pharmacologically induced death is frequently associated with street drugs whose purity is unknown by the user. Legalizing and controlling these drugs will shift the burden of who pays the price from all of us to the people who are actually using the illegal drugs, their families, and friends. There is still a cost to society, but it is a burden to be born primarily by the users, and not so much by the rest of us.
Criminal defense attorney
Former municipal court judge
Life member, NORML Legal Committee
Life member, Colorado Criminal Defense Bar
Member, LEAF (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition