America banned booze in 1920, and repealed the ban in 1933, realizing that Prohibition didn’t solve the drunkenness problem but compounded it. Why can’t we see the same truth about other drugs?
Of course, we don’t criminalize all drugs. We do permit alcohol, and tobacco too – a powerfully addictive drug that reduces the average smoker’s life by ten years – yet we outlaw marijuana, only mildly addictive, with minor health effects (and some valid medical uses). This is the real “reefer madness.”*
Some drugs do cause serious harm. If the drug war actually reduced that harm, it might have a point. But while in certain categories drug use has lately declined, nobody seriously credits the drug war, as opposed to demographic, cultural, and other factors. Nor would legalization materially increase usage. While prices would fall, so would the “forbidden fruit” attraction. No drug user is really stopped by the illegality. And who might start using drugs just because they became legal? (The Netherlands has essentially legalized marijuana, without noticeably higher usage than in nations where it’s banned.)
Curbing the supply has proven futile, when drugs are easily smuggled from poor countries with a street value a hundred times the production cost. Incarceration for drug offenses actually rose about tenfold after 1980, but that didn’t slow the trade; in fact, real prices for hard drugs fell by half, indicative of oversupply. Why imagine we can somehow keep drugs out of America when we can’t even keep them out of prisons? Yet we continue wasting $40 billion a year trying.
The drug war certainly doesn’t protect the public; it’s catastrophic for public order and safety. Just like Prohibition, drugs’ illegality raises their street value, engendering violent gangsterism with countless innocent victims, destroying neighborhoods, and furthermore corroding our police and justice systems with corruption.
Meantime, again because illegality inflates drug prices, many users resort to crime to raise the cash, accounting for a high percentage of muggings, robberies, burglaries, etc. Much of that crime would disappear if drugs were legal. And, obviously, all the police resources spent on that petty crime – and being squandered on the drug war itself – could be redirected against other types of criminality.
It’s also turned into a war on civil liberties. Prominent casualties are the Fourth Amendment’s bar on “unreasonable searches and seizures,” and the Fourteenth’s requirement of due process before deprivation of property. Both have become practically dead letters wherever drugs are concerned. Police have gained free reign to confiscate any property with an alleged drug connection, no proof needed. People have lost homes because someone smoked pot there. This has become a vile police racket. Claiming possible “drug money,” cops even seized a generous tip left for a waitress. (She had to sue to get it back.) George Will recently wrote of cops trying to steal an elderly couple’s motel because some drug dealers visited there. (Click here.)
And people don’t lose only property. The drug war has metastasized into a virtual civil war in Mexico, with about 50,000 dead since 2006. Governments throughout Latin America are beginning to rebel at the human price America’s drug war imposes on them. Here at home, much of our prison population is there because of non-violent drug offenses. Shamefully, America has the world’s highest incarceration rate relative to population. Far too many inmates are just ordinary people unluckily caught up in the drug war’s meat grinder. The cost is huge – not just the costs of running a gigantic prison system, but the human cost, the loss to society, the ruined lives.
Drug use by itself is a victimless crime. You might argue that drug trafficking is not; but we don’t criminalize alcohol or tobacco sales, which harm users at least comparably. Moralism is misplaced here. A free society lets people make such choices for themselves. Anyhow, the drug war doesn’t protect anybody from anything, and causes vastly more harm than it seeks to prevent.
This insanity must stop. Billions could be put to better uses; civil liberties would be restored; crime would plummet; untold lives would be saved instead of wrecked. We’d all be richer, happier, healthier, safer, and freer.
* For my younger readers, “reefer” was an old term for a marijuana cigarette. “Reefer Madness” was a 1936 film whose theme was that marijuana makes people immoral and crazy.