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The Longest-Running War

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Joel Miller, Bad Trip: How the War on Drugs Is Destroying America; (Nashville, Tenn.: WND Books, 2004).

Jeffrey A. Miron, Drug War Crimes: The Consequences of Prohibition; (Oakland, Ca.: The Independent Institute, 2004).

War has become a centerpiece of American politics. The war on terrorism is the focus of U.S. foreign policy. A real war is being fought in Iraq. Jimmy Carter proclaimed the “moral equivalent of war” over energy. Some analysts are advocating a war on obesity.

But the longest-running ongoing “war” is the war on drugs. For decades the U.S. government has attempted to suppress the use and sale of illicit substances. Alcohol and tobacco once were on the prohibited list but now are legal. Cocaine and marijuana, which once were legal, are now banned.

Two new books persuasively argue that this campaign has been not just ineffective, but counterproductive. In the words of Joel Miller, “Prohibition is supposed to make America better. In reality it makes it manifestly worse — just like a drug trip gone bad.”

Neither Miller nor Jeffrey Miron, an economics professor at Boston University, advocates drug use. Indeed, Miller notes that he has never tried drugs and has no interest in doing so. But they argue that the practical consequences of prohibition are negative.

The costs of drug abuse are obvious: “Some people ruin their lives with drugs,” notes Miron. “The right question for policy analysis, however, is not whether drugs are sometimes misused but whether policy reduces that misuse, and at what cost.”

The answer of both authors is that the government only ineffectively cuts drug abuse, and does so at a very high social cost. Miron takes an unusual economic look at drug prohibition. Reviewing alcohol prohibition, he concludes that the attempt to stop Americans from drinking cut cirrhosis deaths by 10 to 20 percent: “This is not a trivial effect, but it is far smaller than suggested by many advocates of prohibition.”

Miron also points to the experience of the dozen American states that have decriminalized marijuana. Although the evidence is limited, there was little increase in drug use. After reviewing the cases of Australia, Europe, and Japan, which are less restrictive than America, Miron finds that “there is no evidence these countries have higher drug use rates; indeed the U.S. rate frequently exceeds that in most other countries.”

This suggests that culture is more important than the law in determining drug demand. Moreover, prohibition obviously doesn’t work well. Miller explores the relative ineffectiveness of government interdiction efforts. By some estimates, law enforcement stops just 10 percent of the illicit supply — leaving abundant drugs and declining prices.

Indeed, the vast profits of trafficking encourage smugglers to be more innovative than the police. Writes Miller, “When dealers sound more like business-school graduates than hustlers and brand their produce like desktop PCs and designer-name chef’s knives — all despite the best efforts of police — perhaps people should begin questioning whether those efforts actually serve any use.”

If drug prohibition were merely ineffective, it wouldn’t matter too much. There is, of course, the $33 billion or so spent to enforce the drug laws, but the cost of attempting to prevent millions of Americans from voluntarily using drugs has been far, far higher.

Problem one, analyzed by Miller, is crime. He finds that drugs are not crimogenic, that is, drugs do not cause users to commit crime: “An overwhelming percentage of drug users never thump old ladies, loot convenience stores, beat their children, or shoot police officers.” Even PCP, research suggests, while creating agitation and disorientation, does not induce violence.

In contrast, drug prohibition inevitably generates crime. Those who use drugs do so illegally. Consumers who steal to fund their habits have to steal more when drug prices rise because of prohibition. More important, notes Miller, “Because the illegality of the drug trade removes legal protection from its participants, the business is subject to brutality.” Traffickers settle their disputes with guns rather than lawsuits.

Equally disturbing is the problem of police corruption. There always have been bad cops, but the greatest temptation is posed by ongoing and profitable criminal enterprises, such as the drug trade. It was a problem during Prohibition. The opportunity for vice is even greater today.

Writes Miller, “Crooked cops are empowered by prohibition because it gives them an incredibly valuable asset. Police are in the unique position to insulate drug dealers from arrest, something drug dealers appreciate and richly reward. If the price is right, an even sexier bargain can be arranged — one in which Johnny Flatfoot actually runs off competitors.”

But drugs are an equal-opportunity corrupter. Judges and politicians are equally susceptible to temptation. Writes Miller, “No other factor inflates corruption as much or as perniciously as drug prohibition.”

Of particular concern is the impact of the drug war on international terrorism. U.S. government officials blame drug users for effectively funding those who kill Americans, but, notes Miller, “Thanks to inflated prices caused by global narcotics prohibition, whoring after state sponsors is no longer needed.” Quite simply, absent the excessive profitability of the opiate trade due to America’s ban on drug use, the Taliban would not be raising millions from opium production throughout the Afghan countryside. So long as people will produce and use drugs — and they have proved willing to do so despite the threat of death on the street and prison at the hands of the state — drug prohibition ensures that foreign producers, including jihadists, will prosper.

Another casualty of the drug war is privacy. As Miller points out, the fact that drug abuse is a victimless (or, more accurately, self-victim) crime means that there is no complaining witness. It is hard to collect evidence against drug users without violating the privacy of all Americans. That means relying on searches, wiretaps, and snitches.

Even so, winning convictions in drug cases isn’t easy. There are too many of them to prosecute; proof beyond a reasonable doubt is made more difficult where the entire transaction is voluntary. Thus, the government has increasingly relied on property seizures. Miller quotes enforcement officials who frankly admit that they use forfeitures, which demand a lower standard of proof, to punish presumed wrongdoers. Yet Miller finds that the toll among the innocent is very high.

Despite the optimistic predictions that often flow from federal officials, there is little good news in the drug war. And there are few serious proposals to achieve better results, that is, to more sharply cut drug abuse at lower cost.

The government already is militarizing the drug war. Police have been turned into paramilitary forces, turning homes and entire neighborhoods into war zones. Even locking up ever more people won’t stop the flow of drugs, which are available inside supposedly secure penitentiaries. Particularly frightening is the increase in what Miller calls “drug-only offenders,” people who were not violent but were jailed, often for significant periods of time because of new mandatory minimums for drug crimes. Exactly how many nonviolent offenders are in prison remains in dispute, but Miller sensibly contends that even the low estimates, approximating 100,000, indicate there are far too many.

Imprisonment imposes huge social costs on the offenders and their families, makes future positive participation in society more difficult, and encourages offenders to shift to a life of more-violent crime. Writes Miller, “Welcome to prison — otherwise known as crime school — where inmates with varying levels of skills and smarts come together and teach each other how to sling dope.” Even if one is not sympathetic to drug offenders, one can see how arresting and imprisoning them is creating far more social harm than the drug use that otherwise would occur.

If intensifying the drug war won’t work, sticking with the status quo is no answer. Perhaps the only hope is to return drugs to the status of a moral, spiritual, and health problem rather than a legal one. Miller notes the importance of “social controls” in limiting destructive behavior. Some of that comes from family and church. Some from simple self-interest.

Basic self-interest and risk aversion dictate that the more dangerous a drug’s perception with the public, the better the society’s ability to control it. There’s a reason very few people use PCP compared to those that use marijuana. While it does have something to do with availability, PCP is perceived by the public as wildly dangerous. Pot is not. As such, more people smoke weed than use PCP.

Proposals for decriminalization or legalization seem radical. But, notes Miron, “The arguments and data mustered for legalization are of far greater quality and objectivity than any brought to bear for prohibition.” America’s liberty tradition should put the burden of proof on supporters of prohibition. After all, concludes Miron, “The goals of prohibition are questionable, the methods are unsound, and the results are deadly.”

Debates over drug policy remain among the most difficult and emotional in the public square. While Miller and Miron might not convince the most dedicated drug warriors, they have presented a powerful case that the drug war is counterproductive. Their evidence deserves a serious response. Americans can no longer blithely assume that drug prohibition is making them safer and better off.

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    Doug Bandow is vice president of policy at Citizen Outreach, the Cobden Fellow in International Economics at the Institute for Policy Innovation, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and serves as adjunct scholar for The Future of Freedom Foundation. He is a former special assistant to President Reagan; he is also a graduate of Stanford Law School and a member of the California and D.C. bars. BOOKS BY DOUG BANDOW: Leviathan Unchained: Washington’s Bipartisan Big Government Consensus (forthcoming) Tripwire : Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World (1996) Perpetuating Poverty : The World Bank, the Imf, and the Developing World (1994) The Politics of Envy : Statism As Theology (1994) The U.S.-South Korean Alliance : Time for a Change (1992) The Politics of Plunder : Misgovernment in Washington (1990) Beyond Good Intentions : A Biblical View of Politics (1988)