The War on Drugs is a Failure
Federal drug laws should be repealed and currently illegal drugs should be regulated by the states
Prohibition is an awful flop.
We like it.
It can’t stop what it’s meant to stop.
We like it.
It left a trail of graft and slime,
It don’t prohibit worth a dime,
It’s filled our land with vice and crime.
Nevertheless, we’re for it.
Franklin P. Adams (1931)
“There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences.” P.J. O’Rourke (1993)
The federal government’s war on drugs is a misguided failure. Currently there are 400,000 non-violent drug offenders in jails and prisons. More than sixty percent of the federal prison population consists of drug offenders. An estimated 1.2 million suspected drug offenders are arrested each year, most for simple possession or petty sale. The government spends 19 Billion dollars every year to enforce its drug laws, more than the Commerce, Interior, and State Departments put together. In spite of all of this, according to the US department of Health and Human Services, 26.7 million Americans used an illicit drug last month. Every year from 1975-1995, at least 82 percent of high school seniors said that they found marijuana “fairly easy” or “very easy” to obtain.
Not only are drugs still widely available, evidence shows that we could be making the problem worse. In 1985, 5.5 percent of American high school seniors used marijuana daily, but in the Netherlands (where marijuana is legal) the rate was only 0.5 percent. Indeed, a national survey found that only 1.7 percent of people who currently do not use drugs said that they would try drugs if they were made legal.
Even police officers agree that we are mismanaging the problem. In 2001 David Klinger, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri and a former officer in the Los Angeles Police Department, stated that as he worked as an officer he, “started to view most people involved with drugs either as broken souls who made self-destructive choices or as harmless people who indulged their appetites in moderation—not as crooks who needed to be punished.” Hollywood director Steven Soderbergh says that while he was working on the movie Traffic, he made a point of interviewing police officers about their work. Soderbergh posed one question to each cop: "If your daughter had a drug problem, would you involve the police department?" Without exception, the answer was "no."
Prohibition of drugs has created the exact same problems that prohibition of alcohol created in the early twentieth century. Before alcohol prohibition, safe and regulated alcohol was readily available from reputable sources. After Prohibition, alcohol was still readily available, but in unregulated condition and from disreputable sources only. This spawned violence and crime. The murder rate rose with the start of Prohibition, remained high throughout Prohibition, and declined for eleven consecutive years after the repeal of Prohibition.
Likewise, before drug prohibition opium, morphine, and cocaine were legally and cheaply available without a prescription at drugstores and grocery stores and through the mail. (Marijuana, of course, is an opportunistic native weed and will grow up through the cracks in a concrete parking lot if left unattended.) Cutting off these safe and reputable sources has forced these substances to be controlled by criminals, but made them only marginally less available. Most, if not all, “drug-related murders” are the result of drugs being forced into the black market and would likely never have happened without prohibition.
Also it is important to note that the federal drug laws are constitutionally dubious. The Tenth Amendment states that any powers not given to the federal government in the constitution are reserved for the states. Alcohol was only prohibited federally by an amendment to the constitution. However, Congress never asked the American people for additional constitutional powers to declare a war on drug users. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 is considered by many to be the most far-reaching federal statute ever passed. It asserts federal jurisdiction over every drug offense in the United States, no matter how small or local its scope.
Further evidence of the federal government’s slapdash attitude about the constitution can be found in their retort to statewide medical marijuana initiatives. A recent survey found that more than 70 percent of U.S. cancer specialists said they would prescribe marijuana if it were legal; nearly half said they had urged patients to break the law to acquire the drug. The British Medical Association reported that nearly 70 percent of its members believe marijuana should be available for therapeutic use. In 1996 voters in California and Arizona responded to this by authorizing physicians to recommend the use of marijuana to seriously ill patients residing in those states. The Clinton administration quickly announced that any physician recommending or prescribing medical marijuana and patients who use marijuana under state law would be prosecuted in federal courts.
The bureaucracy that enforces drug laws is a perfect example of self-perpetuating big government. When drug use goes up, taxpayers are told that the government needs more money to fight against the rising tide of abuse. When drug use goes down, taxpayers are told that it would be a big mistake to cut spending just when progress is being made. Whatever the news, spending levels must be increased. The history of the drug war plainly shows us that spending levels have little to do with drug use, and likely has an adverse effect.
The best solution for the liberty-thieving problem that is the U.S. war on drugs was spelled out by the libertarian think-tank, the Cato Institute, in their Handbook for the 107th Congress. I would lessen its impact if I tried to restate it, so I will close with the same paragraphs that they did:
Congress should repeal the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, shut down the Drug Enforcement Administration, and let the states set their own policies with regard to currently illegal drugs. They would do well to treat marijuana, cocaine, and heroin the way most states now treat alcohol: It should be legal for licensed stores to sell such drugs to adults. Drug sales to children, like alcohol sales to children, should remain illegal. Driving under the influence of drugs should be illegal.
With such a policy, Congress would acknowledge that our current drug policies have failed. It would restore authority to the states, as the Founders envisioned. It would save taxpayers’ money. And it would give the states the power to experiment with drug policies and perhaps devise more successful rules.
The war on drugs has lasted longer than Prohibition, longer than the Vietnam War. But there is no light at the end of this tunnel. Prohibition has failed, again, and should be repealed, again.