Stop The Insane War on Drugs

America banned booze in 1920, and repealed the ban in 1933, realizing that Prohibition didn’t solve the drunkenness problem but compounded it.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.

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10 Responses to “Stop The Insane War on Drugs”

  1. Gregg Millett Says:

    Right on!

    [FSR comment: Yeah, I coulda guessed you’re an old pot-head.]

  2. Scott Perlman Says:

    I am in complete agreement with your thoughts about the legalization of drugs. I have had this discussion many times with different people who have determined that legalization would lead to increase use and a general decay in our society. Yet when I ask if they would consume drugs if legal the most response I have ever got was, “sure, maybe some weed now and then.” When I reminded them how much more fun other drugs could be such as cocaine, heroin, and various hallucinogens they looked at me like I was crazy. Of course they would not take those they told me. I guess they must think they are not typical despite the fact that I get virtually the same answer from everyone.

  3. Lee Says:

    Isn’t it the case that our opposition in Afghanistan funds itself in large part on sales of illegal drugs to us?

    [FSR reply: Yes! Another way in which illegalizing drugs comes back to bite us in the rear, by funding terrorists and other nogoodniks.]

  4. imperialcoins Says:

    Frank, I can agree up to a point when it comes to “soft” drugs such as marijuana. But certainly not with “hard” drugs such as heroine and cocaine. As someone that grew up on the upper West Side of Manhattan during a time when there were at least two junkies on every corner and got to witness the crack epidemic and the consequences, allow me to share my first hand observations:

    Crack is ALREADY CHEAP. It costs less than a pack of cigarettes, from what I understand, it can be purchased for $2. It is so incredibly addictive that severly obese people that get hooked become skeletons on the “crack diet”. People forego eating. I personally have no qualms with idiots killing themselves. But if people are willing to forego eating, steal from their parents and neighbors and sell their kids or prostitute them to support a habit that only costs them a couple of bucks a day, I think it would be insane to open the floodgates.

    Similar things can be said for other hard drugs such as heroine, PCP (angel dust), meth and acid. Have you ever seen someone high on PCP or meth? It is not pretty.

    [FSR comment: Yes, hard drugs do terrible harm. And if I thought for one minute that the war on drugs was saving a single person from the scourge, I’d say OK. But there is no reason to believe this.]

    I agree that 90% of those incarcerated for drug offenses should be released. Also, the goal should be treatment of users not incarceration. We need to do away with the theraputic community approach to treatment. These programs exist to milk the system of money by exchanging one addiction for another- methadone. (A BILLION dollar business for these “non-profits”)

    Also, the war on drugs is BIG BUSINESS. If the government really wanted to bring an end to the flow of drugs into the country a single ounce of heroine would not make it across our borders. There have been numerous stories about how entire poppy fields in Afghanistan have been purposefully left alone. In a matter of months every coca and poppy field in source countries could be leveled, every cladestine lab could be razed.

    [FSR comment: You can spend billions (and we do) trying to destroy the drug trade, and it simply moves somewhere else. It’s totally futile. I repeat: if we can’t keep drugs out of prisons, what makes anyone think they can be kept out of America?]

  5. Harry Husker (@Harry_Husker) Says:

    I agree with the conclusion to end the War on Drugs, actually I think most people do when the arguments for doing so are spelled out. However, like any entrenched policy, there’s a staunch opposition to change from the benefactors of the policy. In this case: Police, Prison Unions, Alcohol producers, Govm’t agencies like DEA, Pharmaceutical companies. All of these depend heavily on having strict drug control laws.

    So again, it becomes a situation of not making rational and persuasive arguments to overturn a policy, but instead overturning an incumbent power structure. The latter is much more challenging.

  6. Donald Sheldon Says:

    I am Donald Sheldon Chairman of the Libertarian Party of Broward County Florida. We are the only political party advocating the re-legalization of all drugs. We have made this our issue for the last two years. We have speakers from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (leap.cc) and other organizations including myself who are working to educate the public on the failed policy that cost us as a nation untold damage in both treasure and in human terms. Life times and money wasted on a policy that can never work and only destroys our society. This is arguably the most important social issue of the day. STOP THE “WAR ON DRUGS” and release the POWs NOW!. This failed policy is nothing less than the “reinstatement of Slavery” in the United States. There is NO BILL OF RIGHTS for anyone accused of a “drug law” violation which really means we have ALL lost our protection guaranteed by our constitution. IF YOU DOUBT THIS CONTACT ME. donaldsheldon@gmail.com

  7. imperialcoins Says:

    Frank- re:your comment “And if I thought for one minute that the war on drugs was saving a single person from the scourge, I’d say OK”

    There are a lot of things that we choose to outlaw as a society for a variety of reasons. In this case, keeping sales of such substances cladestine is reason enough. We have to draw a line somewhere and I am not convinced that there would be a “savings” by legalizing these substances.

    Making certain “hard” drugs legal certainly is not a viable solution. Those that would profit off of the misery and destruction that come in the wake of such substances should be punished severely. But I think a different approach should be taken. Drug dealers of such hard substances as angel dust should be charged with attempted murder or manslaughter/murder (depending on whether or not the deceased was an innocent bystander or the user)

    [FSR comment: Yes, “society” outlaws a lot of things. But since I believe society exists to serve its members, not the other way around, conduct should be illegal ONLY if that advances the welfare of society’s members — NOT merely because it’s disapproved of. Banning drugs does not advance anyone’s welfare, it actually does harm (as I detailed in my posting). That’s exactly the kind of dysfunctional law we should never tolerate.
    “Those that profit … should be punished severely.” What about sales of tobacco? Alcohol? They cause vastly more “misery and destruction.” But people who use all these substances are responsible for the harm they cause THEMSELVES.]

  8. Joel Says:

    I am sympathetic to your position, but not to all of your arguments.

    When alcohol was prohibited, it was not a habit of a small segment of society, but something that had been generally regarded as safe (in moderate quantities) for millenia in western culture. Prohibition seems to have been a misguided social experiment, an attempt to change common behavior that failed because it was hugely unpopular.

    On the other hand, many illegal drugs today didn’t even exist 50 years ago. It seems possible that some of these drugs may have horrible effects on society that we can’t conceive of, even worse than the effects of their illegality. It might be prudent to regulate their use until we can determine this.

    Also, I think you have to take more care when considering the proportion of our population incarcerated due to violation of drug laws. A significant proportion of this population would be engaged in other criminal behavior if drugs were legal. One might argue that the drug trade is simply too attractive, and encourages non-criminals to participate, but I have trouble accepting this argument on faith.

    In any case, it seems to me that the economics of drug use are complicated, because drug use is very much not a rational activity.

    Finally, I guess I am becoming more conservative, because I think there is value in cultural inertia. It seems that generally our society moves very slowly in adopting new mores, and maybe that is part of its resilience. (It’s interesting that we are slowly making tobacco illegal while at the same time slowly making marijuana legal.)

    [FSR comment: Many thanks for your intelligent points. I’ve never even tried drugs, but would dispute that their use is “very much not a rational activity.” It makes people feel good, and that’s perfectly rational. The problem is not going to excess, which is difficult when something is physically addictive. I also disagree that most people in prison for drug offenses are criminal personalities who would otherwise do other types of crimes. A large proportion of them are not even really serious dealers. Most people, in general, are peaceable and law-abiding, and I think that would apply to a high proportion of drug “criminals” if the whole crazy legal morass with drugs went away.]

  9. Who are the real drug criminals? | The Rational Optimist Says:

    […] I’ve written before how police exploit the “drug war” pretext to fatten their coffers by confiscating (i.e., […]

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