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Editorial: Past time for an honest debate on drug laws

Mexico hails Thursday’s capture Jorge Eduardo CostillSanchez alleged leader Gulf drug cartel as major victory military battle against drug trafficking.

Mexico hails Thursday’s capture of Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, the alleged leader of the Gulf drug cartel, as major victory in the military battle against drug trafficking. | Dario Lopez-Mills~AP

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Updated: October 17, 2012 6:31AM

Last week, the Mexican Navy nabbed one of the world’s biggest drug kingpins, a man said to be responsible for billions of dollars in drugs flowing into the United States and for tens of thousands of deaths.

Score one, you might say, for the war on drugs.

But in a speech at Elmhurst College earlier this month, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner, one of our nation’s most distinguished jurists, called it “absurd” to criminalize the sale or use of marijuana and questioned whether even cocaine is all that dangerous.

By and large, Posner said, “the notion of using the criminal law as the primary means of dealing with a problem of addiction, of misuse, of ingesting dangerous drugs, I don’t think that’s sensible at all.”

So much for the war on drugs.

Our own view is somewhat more cautious. We have long called for the decriminalization of marijuana use but stopped short of supporting further libertarian measures, not at all confident they would play out for the better in the real world.

But we’re not at all sure they would not — lord knows, our current drug policies are a failure — and it’s long past time for a more honest debate about this enormously complex issue.

Consider the ordinances now in effect in Chicago and many suburbs that treat the possession of a small amount of pot like a traffic offense, punishable by nothing more than a fine. That’s a sensible policy. It is simply crazy to talk about jail time for people who do what our last few American presidents have done — smoke a joint, maybe even buying and rolling it themselves.

But let’s also be honest about the likely unintended consequences: a bigger demand for recreational marijuana though it remains illegal to produce or sell. And that’s manna from heaven for the violent drug cartels.

If you say it is legal to buy and use a drug (as it was legal to buy and drink a beer during Prohibition) but say it is illegal to produce or sell that drug (as it was illegal to brew and sell beer), then you create the demand for an enormous and violent black market led by the likes of that Mexican drug kingpin (or, back in the day, Al Capone).

To be sure, the money to be made is so great that we will never arrest enough big bosses to stop it. Another boss will step up. Ask Frank Nitti, who stepped up in Chicago when Capone went off to Alcatraz. The bloody wars among the drug cartels will continue, from the Mexican border to the streets of Pilsen.

The bigger the illegal stakes, the greater the violence. Gangs of organized criminals in America’s cities date back to the 19th century, but they pumped up like ballplayers on steroids once Prohibition hit in 1920. As one wise guy says to another in “Boardwalk Empire,” an HBO series about the early days of Prohibition, “You can’t be a half gangster anymore.”

Posner likes to challenge our comfortable certitudes, and we’d be smart to listen.

“Personally, I don’t think we should have a fraction of the drug laws that we have,” he told the Elmhurst College students. “I don’t know how much we know, for example, about whether cocaine is really a disabling drug or whether it’s something people can take and lead more or less normal lives.”

If Posner were a politician, he couldn’t get elected dogcatcher saying stuff like that.

Which is entirely the problem.

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