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Time to Rethink the War on Drugs

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Eighty-four percent of Americans say that possible cocaine use in his 20s should not disqualify Texas governor George W. Bush from being president. But if a cocaine user can go on to be president, why should we put young people in jail for using cocaine? Maybe the voters’ indifference to Bush’s possible past indicates that people are ready for a more rational discussion of drug policy.

The decisions of New Mexico’s Republican governor, Gary Johnson, and Minnesota’s Reform Party governor, Jesse Ventura, to discuss drug legalization are also signs of change.

It’s time for some common sense about the war on drugs. More than $30 billion is being spent annually on the drug war. One and a half million people are being arrested every year. But 78 million people say they have tried drugs, and 80 percent of teenagers say drugs are easy to obtain. Things are obviously going in the wrong direction.

In fact, the war on drugs has been a tragic failure. Just consider all the ways: First, drug prohibition creates high levels of crime – just as alcohol prohibition did in the 1920s. Addicts are forced to commit crimes to pay for a habit that would be easily affordable if it were legal. Police sources have estimated that as much as half the property crime in some major cities is committed by drug users. When black-market contracts are breached, the result is often some form of violent sanction, which usually leads to retaliation and then to open warfare in the streets.

Our capital city, Washington, D.C., has become known as the “murder capital” even though it is the most heavily policed city in the United States. Make no mistake about it, our outrageously high murder rates have nothing to do with the mind-altering effects of a marijuana cigarette or a crack pipe. They are the result of the drug trade, not the drugs themselves.

Second, drug prohibition channels more than $40 billion a year into the criminal underworld. Alcohol prohibition drove reputable companies into other industries or out of business altogether, which paved the way for mobsters to make millions through the black market. If drugs were legal, organized crime would stand to lose billions of dollars, and drugs would be sold by legitimate businesses in an open marketplace.

Third, drug prohibition is a classic example of throwing money at problem. The federal government spends some $16 billion to enforce the drug laws every year – all to no avail. When drug use goes up, taxpayers are told the government needs more money so that it can redouble its efforts against a rising drug scourge. When drug use goes down, taxpayers are told that it would be a big mistake to cut spending just when progress is being made. Good news or bad, spending levels must be maintained or increased.

Fourth, the drug laws are responsible for widespread social upheaval. The drug laws have turned our cities into battlefields and upended the normal social order. Drug prohibition has created a criminal subculture in the inner cities. The immense profits involved in a black-market business make drug dealing the most lucrative endeavor for many people, especially those who care least about getting on the wrong side of the law.

Drug dealers become the most visibly successful people in inner-city communities, the ones with money, and clothes, and cars. Social order is turned upside down when the most successful people in a community are criminals. The drug war makes peace and prosperity virtually impossible in inner cities.

Fifth, the drug laws break up families. Too many parents have been separated from their children because they were convicted of marijuana possession, small-scale sale of drugs, or some other nonviolent offense.

Will Foster used marijuana to control the pain and swelling associated with his crippling rheumatoid arthritis. He was arrested, convicted of marijuana cultivation, and sentenced to 93 years in prison, later reduced to 20 years. Are his three children better off with a father who uses marijuana medicinally, or a father in jail for 20 years?

And going to jail for drug offenses isn’t just for men anymore. In 1996, 188,880 wom-en were arrested for violating drug laws. Most of them did not go to jail, of course, but more than two-thirds of the 146,000 women behind bars have children. One of them is Brenda Pearson, a heroin addict who managed to maintain a job at a securities firm in New York. She supplied heroin to an addict friend, and a Michigan prosecutor had her extradited, prosecuted, and sentenced to 50 to 200 years. We can only hope that her two children will remember her when she gets out.

Sixth, drug prohibition leads to civil liberties abuses. The demand to win this unwinnable war has led to wiretapping, entrapment, property seizures, and other abuses of Americans’ traditional liberties. The saddest cases result in the deaths of innocent people: people like Donald Scott, whose home was raided at dawn on the pretext that he was cultivating marijuana, and who was shot and killed when he rushed into the living room carrying a gun; or people like the Rev. Accelyne Williams, a 75-year-old minister who died of a heart attack when police burst into his Boston apartment looking for drugs – the wrong apartment, as it turned out; or people like Esequiel Hernandez, who was out tending his family’s goats near the Rio Grande just six days after his 18th birthday when he was shot by a Marine patrol looking for drug smugglers. As we deliberate the costs and benefits of drug policy, we should keep those people in mind.

Students of American history will someday ponder the question of how today’s elected officials could readily admit to the mistaken policy of alcohol prohibition in the 1920s but continue the policy of drug prohibition. Indeed, the only historical lesson that recent presidents and Congresses seem to have drawn from the period of alcohol prohibition is that government should not try to outlaw the sale of alcohol. One of the broader lessons that they should have learned is this: prohibition laws should be judged according to their real-world effects, not their promised benefits.

It’s time to let go of old ideas and recognize that the war on drugs has failed. We should try a new policy: Let adults make their own decisions about drugs.

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    Mr. Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, is the author of Libertarianism: A Primer and the editor of several books, including "The Libertarian Reader" and "The Crisis in Drug Prohibition".