Is America winning the war on drugs?

The first casualty of war is truth. That's as true for the war on drugs as the war on terror. This is a war on America, not drugs. Photo: AP

WASHINGTON, March 29, 2013 ― The “war on drugs,” a phrase coined in by the Nixon administration, has resulted in half of America’s incarcerated adult population being jailed for drug crimes.

At a time when state budgets are stretched and governors are facing harsh economic choices, at a time when state budgets are slashed to eliminate education and social services, we are constantly reminded that the United States leads other nations in the wildly expensive activity of locking up hundreds of thousands of its citizens for non-violent crimes. 


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Marijuana was illegalized as part of William Randolph Hurst’s campaign to eliminate hemp, a cheap alternative to his extensive tree farms and wood pulp operations. The war on that drug always had an anti-Hispanic flavor, and it is interesting to see a nation as sophisticated as ours still fighting a Prohibition-style war (with as little success as Prohibition had against liquor) that disproportionately incarcerates black and Latino males. And this is to ban a substance that appears to be vastly less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco.

The cost of the war on drugs to the American taxpayer is multi-layered. There are the obvious costs of enforcement and incarceration. Add on to those the costs imposed on welfare systems as families are ripped apart and destroyed by the drug war. Neighborhoods are devastated, justice systems and politicians corrupted, police resources diverted from fighting other types of crime.

The social cost of this war, as of any other war, is enormous.

Just as with Prohibition, the war on drugs has fostered a culture of violence. When illegal drugs are no longer illegal, but controlled, that violence will be reduced along with drug-related crime, the costs of enforcement and incarceration will fall, and costs to American taxpayers will decline.


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Prohibition was born of the 18th Amendment in 1919. With Prohibition came increasing use of stronger drinks than had been popular before, the wholesale corruption of police forces and judges, and the rise of crime families like Al Capone’s. The 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition in 1933, and contrary to the belief of prohibitionists, the nation did not descend into an alcoholic haze.

In 1925, journalist H.L. Mencken observed of Prohibition, “Five years of Prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.” 

Why are wars on drugs so pricey? They involve a huge expansion of government power, regulation, law enforcement, and prisons. They create their own sort of “military-industrial complex,” becoming very good for very big business.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently stated that the nation’s unemployment fluctuated between 7.8 and 7.9 percent in the last quarter, but rather than releasing resources and liberating the economy, Washington fights a war at home against Americans, leaving a swath of devastation through an already fragile economy. The question for most Americans becomes, where are our priorities? The million black men in prison don’t count as unemployed. Is the drug war a clever way of keeping black unemployment down?

The war on drugs makes us fearful, makes us believe we stand on unstable ground, and makes us more open to greater government intrusion for our own safety. It also creates distrust between races, an anxiety about other groups of people that serves interests that aren’t really ours. 

Measured by its own standards, we are losing this war on drugs. In prison facilities that represent the heaviest hand government can place on its citizens, the easy availability of drugs mocks the new prohibition. Those same prisons are helping to breed a permanent underclass bound to organized crime. As long as there is a demand for drugs, a supply will be created, and as the prices and penalties grow, the suppliers will grow increasingly violent and ruthless in defense of their profits. We’re losing the war on drugs because it’s a war that defies the laws of economics. We might as well be fighting a war on gravity.

If recreational drugs were legalized and taxed, the nation would quickly put drug cartels and drug dealers out of business. Just as we have over the counter smoke shops and cigar lounges, over the counter marijuana would be a source of revenue for small business owners, and an immediate revenue source state governments. Maybe it’s time for Washington to declare victory in the drug war and then declare a gracious peace on the “losing” side. Then divert the $100 billion we spend to fight the war to funding healthcare, cutting taxes, paying down the debt, or something else that’s actually useful.

The result of our drug war is a quadrupling of prison populations over the last two generations, millions of broken homes, especially among minorities, and a widespread disrespect for the law. We couldn’t have designed a better war on ourselves if we’d tried.

Conservative thinkers have an incredible opportunity to liberate the nation by leading opposition to our savage drug laws. The American public is ready for a new approach that includes systematic legalization and limited regulation; over 55 percent favor outright legalization of marijuana. Treat marijuana like alcohol and tobacco, treat Americans like adults, and stop waging war on our inner cities. 

 

The term “war on drugs” was coined by the Nixon Administration, not the Reagan Administration. This article has been edited to correct that mistake.


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