Legalizing drugs isn’t making people use them less. The WSJ reports that about four times as many people die from using prescription painkillers as did ten years ago:
About 14,800 people died in the U.S. from overdoses of painkillers in 2008, up from 4,000 deaths in 1999, while the number of these drugs sold quadrupled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which issued the report.
The costs of social programs and healthcare to treat prescription drug abuse stand at about $72 billion, on par with what the government spends fighting illegal drugs every year. But it gets worse. Some members in the medical establishment are abusing their positions to provide easy access to painkillers:
Prescriptions of painkilling drugs are rising as new drugs appear on the market and doctors prescribe them help people manage pain more effectively. The soaring rates of prescription-painkiller abuse and deaths are mostly a reflection of how easy they have become to get, either through “pill mills,” shady storefront operations that dispense painkillers like Vicodin or Oxycontin without conducting medical examinations of buyers, or through “doctor shopping,” multiple prescriptions from a number of physicians, the CDC said.
The market for these barely legal drugs provides a snapshot of what the future might look like if more serious drugs were ever legalized. So far, the results have been uninspiring: huge costs, a rising death toll and systemic abuse. If we can’t trust our medical establishment to prescribe legal painkillers, how can we trust it to prescribe methamphetamine or heroin, as some libertarian critics of the War on Drugs would recommend?
This is not to say that we should or even could revoke the FDA approval for painkillers that hit the market in the past decade. It might even be time to rethink the War on Drugs. But we will still have to live with the incentives of the policies we make. So far, these incentives have created a system which is far from the predicted libertarian stoner utopia.
The fault is not in our laws but in ourselves — changing our laws won’t make humanity’s crooked timber straight again.