I agree with everything in Jack Hunter’s excellent analysis of Michael Gerson’s attack on Ron Paul’s proposed drug policy, but I don’t think this should be a primarily ideological dispute. Gerson may see it that way, but his column is so divorced from the facts that any kind of informed judgement on the issue would be impossible for him. This should not come as a surprise as Gerson served in an administration that rejected the “reality-based community” because “[w]e’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” But for those of us who stubbornly choose to deal with the world as it is, a corrective to Gerson’s misinformation is in order.

Gerson’s only real piece of “evidence” that drug legalization would turn us all into Bill Burroughs is his bizarre assertion that drugs are de facto decriminalized in Washington, D.C. and this has led to an explosion in use. That’s odd because they still seem to be locking people up at a far higher rate than the rest of the country. D.C.’s prison population is housed in federal prisons, so it’s harder to track, but the jail population is two-and-a-half times the national average. Granted, the district’s crime rate is far higher than the U.S. average, but the incarceration rate suggests that the police are still vigorously enforcing the laws–even drug laws–to the best of their ability. Whether they are actually enforceable is another matter.

Moreover, Washington D.C. isn’t an extreme outlier when it comes to drug use. According to 2004-2005 figures from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, 9.51% of Washington D.C.’s population used drugs in the past month compared to 8.02% of all Americans. That’s relatively high, but still lower than Colorado, Montana, Rhode Island, Oregon, Vermont, and Alaska, and very close to New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Some of those states have relatively lenient drug policies compared to other states, but others are relatively strict (New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws, for instance, were still in full effect for half of this time frame). Different drug policies must have some effect on drug use, but it’s not immediately clear what that effect is.

Portugal’s recent experience with the decriminalization of all drugs suggests that drug abuse can decline substantially without the threat of prison. Portugal’s drug czar claims that “the number of problematic drug users in the country has declined — from about 100,000 in the mid-1990s to 60,000 today…” This has been accompanied by an increase in experimental use, but most of these users try it a few times and move on. There could be a number of other explanations for Portugal’s falling addiction rate, but at the very least it shows that reducing penalties for drug use does not turn the country into a junkie wasteland.

One thing is clear: our prohibitionist drug policy has utterly failed to keep people from using drugs. Despite locking hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens into cages for drug crimes over the past century, we now live in a country where over 40% of the population over 12 years of age–and a solid majority among young adults–admits to using an illegal drug in their lifetime. I’m sure Gerson believes that stringent drug laws are a major impediment to drug use, but that belief is in no way connected to reality.