Prof. Perlstein Is All Wet

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by Walter Block by Walter Block

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In this article, I made the case that the best way to stop the horrendous murder rate in New Orleans is to legalize drugs. Prof. Perlstein of Loyola New Orleans offers several criticisms of my argument, for which I thank him. His scholarly and thoughtful reply gives me the chance to clarify and further expand on my thesis.

1. My faculty colleague starts off on somewhat of a false note, claiming that "Block doesn’t believe the population of drug abusers would increase." But I never said any such thing in the article he is criticizing, nor in any of my other publications on this subject. My view is the very opposite. Indeed, I stated on 1/26/07: "Just as Las Vegas evolved from a stretch of desert into a world class city when it was the only one to offer gambling, so will the Big Easy surpass its previous preeminence (it was once the leading city in the entire South) when it alone offers legal drugs. This industry all by itself, will put us back on the map." There will be millions of drug addicts who will flock to the Big Easy were we to institute such a humane proposal; the more the better as far as I am concerned. This, at least, was the experience of the English during their all too brief period of legalization. People came there from all over the British Dominions to avail themselves of this bit of economic freedom.

But these are not at all the sorts of people Perlstein wants to see repopulating Crescent City, not top drawer at all. He calls them "desperados… the most unstable, unhealthy and criminally inclined segment of the population." And, in this, he is correct, at least superficially. The point is, that these poor souls are at present exactly as this "criminal justice journalist" describes them. But they are not human garbage. Nor is it very "progressive" to view them in any such manner. Rather, they are victims of a cruel and unjust drug prohibition law. Their plight stems almost entirely from this evil legislation. Under legalization, they would bloom, as do newly watered flowers after a period of drought.

2. Why is this? It is because drug prohibition radically raises its price. The desperation of the addict stems from the fact that apart from a few rich athletes, doctors, singers and actors, the only way this price may be paid is through prostitution, or drug pushing or robbery. According to one estimate "a gram of 100% pure heroin … would be cut 10 to 15 times and sell for about $2,000. But take it away from the black market, make it legal, and heroin is a pretty cheap drug.  The British National Health Service (NHS) pays about $10.00 for this gram of heroin." In my view, the latter figure is perhaps ten times too high. NHS is a socialist organization. On the free market it would sell for about $1.00.  If feeding a drug habit cost about as much as eating a few candy bars per day, these people, these human beings, could lead quasi-normal lives. They could have ordinary jobs. Without the desperate search for the next "fix" and the wherewithal to finance it, this flotsam and jetsam would be turned in one fell swoop into productive members of the New Orleans community.

It was once said of Israel that there was a perfect match between a people without land, and a land without people. To discuss that point would take us way too far afield. But no words could more accurately describe addicts in the U.S., and indeed in the entire world, on the one hand, and the territory of what used to be New Orleans. Perlstein may not appreciate this, but there are acres and acres, no, square mile after square mile, of empty abandoned houses just waiting for people to repair and occupy them. We are in desperate need of new occupants, who would be willing to work, and this describes to a "T" drug addicts no longer in thrall to exorbitant black market drug prices.

The point is, Perlstein is very much in error in his second argument, too. Here he maintains that I am failing to take into account what "A first-year criminology student can tell you" namely "that most burglars and robbers are stealing to feed a drug habit." Of course they are. But this stems, solely, from the astronomical prices paid for substances that grow like weeds. And this in turn is entirely a function of prohibition. Their prices would be very low under free enterprise, and there would thus be no more reason for anyone to engage in crime to support an addiction.

Increased crime is a great danger according to my critic, especially at a time when "the overwhelmed New Orleans police department can’t keep up with stray shoplifters." Of course, the cops can’t deal with petty theft, let alone the more serious kind: they are too busy hassling, arresting and incarcerating people for the non-crime of polluting their own bodies. Some 60% of all inmates are in prison due to drug "crimes." Were drugs legalized, and the police free to stop real crimes, they would undoubtedly do a far better job of dealing with them.

3. My Loyola colleague labels as a "fiction" my contention that "An inordinate amount of these (New Orleans murders) consists of drug dealers shooting each other in turf wars." Perhaps journalist professors do not read newspapers, or consult crime statistics. Perhaps Prof. Perlstein could begin his research with this. To pick one quote at random from the hundreds of news stories listed therein: "They call themselves the Lemon Crew, the Scorpions, Tiny Rascals and 60 Lansdowne Crips, and there are dozens of others, laying claim to blocks and neighborhoods across the city. They are Philadelphia’s gangs, and some are extraordinarily violent, contributing to the surge in shootings and murders engulfing the city." Want something closer to home, maybe from the Times Picayune? Here: "Saying an increase in violent crime on the West Bank is the result of post-Katrina gangs "fighting over turf," Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee on Wednesday showed off several high-powered weapons, including a possible grenade launcher, various narcotics and $31,000 in cash that investigators confiscated Monday in a drug raid in Waggaman."

4. Dr. Perlstein objects to legalizing drugs in New Orleans on the ground that we are already "fragile enough as it is" in terms of psychological and health services. But, once again, addicts are in their present dire straights only because of prohibition and the resultant inordinately high drug prices. Eliminate these, and virtually all of these problems recede. As for "newbie cocaine and heroin users," I have already answered this objection, but will happily do so again: Anyone who wants to, can shoot up right now. There is surely no one, at present, who refrains from drug use simply because of prohibition. At least, under legalization, no one would go to school yards and try to hook youngsters, as at present.

5. My intellectual opponent is not at all impressed with New Orleans following the path blazed by Las Vegas.Why, the latter doesn’t even have any major league sports franchises. Were drugs legal here, "people would leave New Orleans in droves." What? They are not already doing that, due to the fact that we are fast becoming the murder capital of the country? If the status quo in this regard continues, we will soon lose the Hornets and the Saints in any case. Prof. Perlstein doesn’t seem to realize that the Big Uneasy is already emptying out. Posit no more murders, at least not the overwhelming majority of them that are drug gang turf related. Imagine a few million additional peaceful citizens rebuilding and then occupying our hundreds of thousands of empty dwellings. Think of New Orleans with a larger population than Dallas and Atlanta combined.

In his conclusion, my learned colleague, I fear, contradicts himself. On the one hand, he admits, he concedes, that the "u2018war on drugs’ is a dismal failure." On the other hand, he adamantly rejects a possible breakthrough. The federales owe us big. They don’t seem to be disposed to pay us back with coin of the realm. Maybe, just possibly, they can be embarrassed into allowing us a free enterprise zone in this regard. But Perlstein dismisses this proposal as something that should have been written "for entertainment purposes only," as an "April Fools joke."

Those empty hulks of houses will only become "drug dens" under present prohibition, their likely fate. Under legalization in sharp contrast, large numbers of people who are slowly dying horrendous deaths will be able to get their lives back together again. Does not Dr. Perlstein have any sympathy for their plight? And in so doing, they will go a long way toward curing our own malaise: economically, spiritually, psychologically, and, most important, in radically reducing our horrendous murder rate.

Our horrendous murder rate is due to drug gangs shooting it out with each other over turf. Under legalization, this stops forthwith, just as it did when prohibition of alcohol ended. "Progressives" should be appalled.

Perhaps he opposes a free market in drugs for New Orleans alone. We are too brittle, too helpless in the aftermath of Katrina. Where, then, should this legalization take place? In the entire country? Not too likely. In some city that is doing reasonably well? None would likely take what so many people regard as a leap in the dark. Legalization has to occur somewhere, and no more likely place for this is our own New Orleans. Perlstein dismisses this proposal as something that should have been written "for entertainment purposes only," as an "April Fools joke." But it is our present policy that is ludicrous.

Dr. Block [send him mail] is a professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans, and a senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He is the author of Defending the Undefendable.

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