Many of the costs to society involving prohibition aren't easily quantified on a spreadsheet. Some intangible costs are trivial, but some threaten the very underpinnings of American society and government. An incomplete listing of what we've given up in the name of Prohibition:
Prohibition undermines the US Constitution:
1. Prohibition violates states rights. From the very beginnings of modern Prohibition, the Federal government has made every effort to undermine the freedom of the states and their citizens. In the early days, this occurred through legalistic mechanisms like requiring taxes to be paid on drugs, then refusing to accept such payments even when offered. More recently, it has taken a perhaps even more sinister turn in the form of the Federal government arresting people involved in providing 'medical' marijuana supplies in states in which it was legal for them to do so. In doing so, they have declared that the will of the people is meaningless compared to the will of the Federal government, and anyone who chooses to exercise the rights explicitly granted by state laws will be crushed if the federal government disapproves of those rights.
2. Prohibition violates the right to privacy. America has a long-standing tradition that your own body (and home) are your own business; the "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness" promised to us in the Declaration of Independence. Prohibition has taken the unprecedented step of declaring that what consenting adults do with themselves in the privacy of their own homes is in fact wholly subject to the permission and approval of the federal government; that 'it may not be good for you' is enough of a government interest to trump personal freedom and privacy. Thanks to Prohibition, in order to get or keep a job today you may be required to urinate into a cup while being watched in order to make sure you haven't smoked a joint over the weekend, while young children are taught to report any drug use by their parents to the State.
3. Prohibition violates the right to due process. Shocked by the skyrocketing costs of Prohibition, governments on all levels have resorted to seizing and selling suspect's property to pay for the 'drug war'. If they were seizing property to pay for fines levied by courts after a suspect had been convicted it would be a reasonable process, however, that isn't how property seizure works. Rather, the government grabs any property that they even suspect was paid for in part of whole with drug trade money. They don't wait for a conviction. Indeed, they don't even need a conviction; even if you are never charged with a crime or are acquitted, they can keep your property! This is the only circumstances in American law that I know of where you can be stripped of your property without having been convicted (or even charged) with a violation of the law.
4. Prohibition violates the protection against excessive punishments/fines. Another promise to us from the founding fathers was that we would be protected from malicious and unreasonable punishments. Simply put, you don't get to execute people for jaywalking; the punishment must be appropriate to the crime. Have the punishments of Prohibition been appropriate for the severity of the offenses? Consider the strange case of Webster Alexander, an 18-year-old sentenced to twenty-six years in prison for selling about $350 worth of marijuana to an undercover police officer. (Newspaper story.) While selling a bit of pot may not be a socially redeeming activity, it's hardly on the level of a murderer or serial rapist (crimes that fetch similar or even lesser sentences.) How did things get so bizarrely out of control? The answer is simple: When drugs were outlawed, people ignored the laws for the simple reason that the government was unable to consistently catch offenders. Since the politicians were already doing as much as they could to catch drug users (and in most cases failing) the only thing they could think of to do was to increase penalties. The drug users still remained unmoved by these harsher penalties, because they still didn't expect to get caught (and most aren't.) And, failing again to stop use, the politicians have increased penalties again and again in an escalating cycle; frustration over prohibition's failures provoking even more brutal treatment of the few offenders they are able to catch.
This is one of the lessons of prohibition that has been utterly lost on the politicians; harsher sentencing doesn't work for the simple reason that there is a credibility gap in the government's ability to enforce the drug laws. The drug dealer doesn't care if a sale could mean a year in prison or ten for the simple reason that he doesn't expect to get caught. Go ahead: Drop by a prison some time and ask a few drug dealers if they thought they would be caught when they committed their offense. In spite of arresting over a million people on drug charges last year, tens of millions of drug users escaped unnoticed. As they expected too. Indeed, it's a rare user or dealer who even knows what the sentencing guidelines are. I couldn't begin to guess what the penalty for a given amount of a certain drug would be, and I've made more effort than most to educate myself on the subject.
Most of the prohibited drugs are at worst no more dangerous or socially destructive than alcohol or tobacco. To punish the marijuana or ecstasy user but not the alcohol or tobacco user is shameless hypocrisy at best, and a grave injustice at worst.
5. Prohibition violates equal protection. It is one of the most fundamental ideals of our society and our government that superficial distinctions cannot be used as the basis for discrimination/unequal treatment. You can hang a man for murder, but you can't hang him just because you feel he's a 'wrong' skin color or religion or political leaning. However, this sort of political lynching is precisely what the 'drug war' is built upon: Most illegal drugs are no more inherently dangerous or unhealthy or addictive or otherwise expensive to society than alcohol and tobacco. Yet, because alcohol and tobacco are drugs associated with mainstream whites while prohibited drugs are associated with liberals, socialists, gays, and ethnic and religious minorities, the first two drugs remain legal and highly available while all other drugs have been quickly outlawed upon becoming popular.
One of the more sinister aspects of the bigotry-by-proxy that is part of prohibition has been the selective targeting, prosecution and sentencing of minorities in America. Black drug users are consistently two to three times as likely as whites to be arrested. According to Justice P. A. Quince of the Florida Supreme Court, at one point black men accounted for 92% of convictions for possession/sale of crack cocaine, in spite of whites being the largest user group in the US. (Source.) Likewise, the penalties for crack cocaine (the form associated with poor minorities) are as much as 100 times more severe than for powder cocaine (the form associated with middle-class white cocaine users like George W. Bush.) As a white person, perhaps I should take it as a comfort that the system is hunting minorities instead of me...but that doesn't make it right.
6. Prohibition violates freedom of religion. Many Americans would laugh at the idea of drug use as a religious practice; after all, it's not something the currently dominant religions normally do. Yet, the use of mind altering drugs to seek spiritual enlightenment and commune with the supernatural world is an ancient practice, far predating younger religions like Christianity and Islam. There is no compelling public health interest in banning traditional 'entheogenic' drugs like peyote, ayahuasca and psychoactive mushrooms, yet they are condemned by the law as vigorously as heroin and cocaine. These religious uses have been made (and in most cases kept) illegal simply because they aren't recognized as legitimate by the Judeo-Christian majority; the drugs in question pose virtually no risk of injury, death, or addiction (unlike alcohol and tobacco.)
Prohibition is anti-science and anti-reason.
In terms of science, the prohibitionists find themselves painted into a strange corner. Having adopted the position that recreational drugs are unspeakably dangerous, they fully expected science to bear that position out. The problem is that in virtually every case, science has repudiated them. From marijuana causing homicidal insanity to LSD causing birth defects to ecstasy making holes in your brain, just about every time the prohibitionist camp has made a medical/scientific claim, they've been slapped down by science. A scientist would have reformed their views to fit the evidence, but politicians are not scientists. Instead of allowing research to guide policy, they are determined to have political convictions define scientific reality.
This conflict between prohibition and reality is perhaps best seen in efforts to study drugs for possible medical uses, such as attempts to determine if MDMA can be used to help the treatment of some psychiatric problems, or whether marijuana might be useful in controlling nausea and helping appetite in chemotherapy patients. The prohibitionist wing of the government, primarily in the form of the leadership of the Drug Enforcement Agency, has repeatedly insisted that prohibited drugs have no medical value because they haven't been given FDA approval, and as drugs with no medical use (as they have just defined it), research to look for medical uses must not be permitted. It's a convoluted circular logic by which you must provide research results before they will permit you to do the research. Indeed, prohibitionist forces in the US government have actively tried to stop research by sending out pet 'scientists' like George Ricaurte (who's own work has been repeatedly discredited) to campaign against legitimate research and dragged their feet in issuing permits needed for researchers to handle prohibited drugs.
Prohibition alienates otherwise law-abiding citizens, undermines law enforcement and breeds corruption.
Perhaps most insidious of all, drug prohibition has turned tens of millions of otherwise honest, law-abiding citizens into criminals. Even though most drug users will never be caught, this exerts a powerful influence on our attitudes towards police and the law, as illustrated by the reaction of one casual user, "Ramblin Man":
"My concern [is] feeling like an enemy of my own country. I was in the bank the other day when two cops walked in. I know cops personally and never had a single bad experience with them, but on this particular day I felt something I never felt before. I realized for the first time that if those cops knew what I was doing [in my private life] they would try to bust me. In one single moment my relationship with the police went from those that protect my rights to those that hunt me down. I was the enemy. I was the guy that two days earlier bought illegal drugs. And it doesn't matter that I used those drugs responsibly. It was still illegal and they would have busted me in a second. [...]
I have never engaged in any activity in my life that warranted me going to prison. This is a whole new experience for me. What I'm trying to express is the shock I'm experiencing as I pass from an ordinary member of society into the drug counter-culture. I feel different. I look at people differently. I look at our laws differently and especially those that enforce those laws. I always knew the drug war put people at odds with one another, but now I'm starting to pick up on the byproducts of this adversarial relationship. The mistrust, the fear, the dislike and even the hatred felt by some. [...] I'm the enemy. I must hide."
This may seem like an odd attitude to the average non-user, but it's endemic among users. Like 'RM', I've never been arrested or charged with anything. But when I see a cop, I react much the same way a black person would to seeing the KKK. There is the enemy. Avoid them. Don't trust them, don't cooperate with them.
If illegal drug users were just a one-in-a-thousand freak occurrence, this might be a trivial issue. But drug use is not rare. Half of all high school seniors in America have used an illegal drug (most often marijuana) and many know well the sense of alienation and persecution that comes from your own government having declared that you deserve to be in prison for your private lifestyle choices. It's a little like being gay once was; a generation skulking in the shadows, afraid of and hating the people that were supposed to be "protecting and serving" us.
Police are not free of the psychological burden of drug prohibition either. No competent cop seriously believes that occasional pot smokers are a menace to western civilization, yet they are required by law to hunt such people down if they can. In forcing police to carry out a policy that many decent people believe is wrong, law enforcement is demeaned and dishonored, in their own eyes as well as ours. Ever prodded on by relentlessly hysterical anti-drug efforts, the police are constantly forced to choose between respecting civil rights and trying to carry out the mission of punishing drug use. The result is unhappy police hating the public, and an unhappy public hating the police.
Nor is the impact on law enforcement limited to ill will. Time after time, police have succumbed to the temptation of the easy money that prohibition has imbued the drug trade with, further eroding respect for the law and those charged with carrying it out. Consider the possibilities: You are a cop working the beat, and catch a petty drug dealer with a bag of pot. He has $500 on him; after taxes, as much as you'll make all week. "Just let me go," he says, "you can keep the money." What do you do? You know better than to believe that arresting one more pothead will actually do any good, and a cop's salary isn't exactly heroic. When you reach sensitive positions like border patrol, the potential size of bribes only goes up. The US has managed to keep this narco-corruption reasonably under control (if not well enough to keep DRC.net from making stories of police corruption a regular feature); in some countries even the topmost people in law enforcement have been in the pay of the drug cartels.
By marginalizing people involved in drugs, we also erode our ability to stop real crimes. When somebody is in a bad part of town buying drugs and sees a robbery committed, do you think they'll be willing to go introduce themselves to the police to help solve the case? Making a large segment of the population fear and hate police simply because they like to use something other than alcohol for intoxication has some very high costs attached to it.
Prohibition is damaging the environment.
In a single year in the US, law enforcement caught roughly 10,000 methamphetamine labs, and street prices/availability didn't even hiccup. How many are there? God only knows. In the pharmaceutical industry, there are tight regulations on the disposal of chemical waste. You can't just flush it down the toilet or dump it into a storm drain. Yet, that's precisely the sort of thing unregulated drug labs are doubtless doing every day; toxic solvents, acids, poisons like mercury, and more. Now imagine this wonderful river of toxic chemical waste draining into our rivers and steams and lakes; the very sources of the water we drink, bath in, cook with, and do our laundry with. Think about this little 'benefit' of the war on drugs the next time you take a bath or drink a glass of water.
And that's just the local boys. When we get into areas like South and Central America, not only does the extraction and processing of cocaine and heroin produce ton after ton of chemical waste flowing off into the rainforests, but producers are forced to travel deep into remote regions and practice slash-and-burn agriculture in order to grow coca plants and opium poppies where they can't easily be found and destroyed by eradication efforts. Just to add insult to injury, every year the US-funded eradication efforts spray tons of powerful herbicides like Roundup over virgin rainforest in efforts to kill these remote plantings, further damaging the forests. Yet, the cocaine and heroin continues to flow. Law enforcement destroys 30% of the coca plantings? Plant 30% more. The prohibitionists like to believe that the drug cartels only produce as much drugs as can be sold in the US assuming all of it makes it through; thus, they argue, if you catch 10% of the smuggling, you reduce drug use by 10%. The cartels, however, are a little smarter than government bureaucrats; like any industry selling a 'perishable' product, they over-produce and over-ship enough to maintain market levels. What successes do occur in interrupting the trade do little more than ensure the high prices of what does get in.
Prohibition supports terrorism.
In 2002 the US government launched an amusing ad campaign, accusing drug users of supporting terrorism. In some cases, there was a glimmer of truth to it; for a period, the Taliban was getting tax income from the opium/heroin trade as part of their tax on farmland. On the other hand, the US government itself had also given the Taliban hundreds of millions of dollars in order to help them rebuild after the war with Russia and eradicate the opium trade. On 9/11 we found out what one of these American drug-war funded projects was.
Likewise, most drugs never involve terrorist groups. Canadian marijuana isn't exactly funding suicide bombers. Our seemingly limitless domestic methamphetamine production doesn't help Columbian rebels; if anything, it undercuts the cocaine trade they profit from. Nor are the ecstasy 'superlabs' in the Netherlands known for their ties to extremists (when was the last time somebody woke up with a severed tulip head in their bed as a warning?)
Beyond the wonderful humor of suggesting that heroin addicts might quit out of political concerns, the campaign also completely ignores the real point: The only reason any drug money at all funds terrorists and other dangerous criminals is because of prohibition. By driving drug sales to the black market, we have ensured that honest, law-abiding businesses will not be the ones running the trade. Interestingly, the same thing happens when you drive any business underground, as demonstrated by the use of illegal alcohol sales to fund terrorism in Saudi Arabia. There's a lot of money in potato chips and Pepsi too, but because the trade is not suppressed, it's handled by generally law-abiding corporations. (The economic conflict between Pepsi and Coca-Cola makes the average drug-dealing gang look like small fry indeed, but who's ever heard of a soda-pop motivated drive-by shooting?) By ending prohibition we could take away most of this source of funding for dangerous criminals.
Prohibition causes crime.
In some cases, a drug's pharmacological effects themselves promote crime, such as the tens of thousands of rapes, assaults and robberies associated with alcohol use every year. In many other cases, however, crimes are caused not by the medical effects of drugs, but by drug prohibition. By far the largest category of crimes associated with drug use is property crimes (theft, robbery, etc.) in order to pay for the more addictive drugs like heroin and cocaine. This is significant, because drugs are not inherently expensive; we have only kept them a costly habit through Prohibition. (For instance, the Drug Enforcement Agency estimates that 'ecstasy' tablets cost as little as 25 cents to make...yet may sell for as much as $30 in the US due to the grossly inflated profit margins created by prohibition.)
Beyond forcing addicts to deal with the black market to support their illness, prohibition also causes a great deal of violence. In a world where you can't go to the police to report a robbery or sue to collect a debt, the drug trade relies on violence to sustain itself. Users who can't pay their dealers may be beaten or killed. Gangs and local drug cartels murder each other over territory, often catching innocent bystanders in the crossfire. Honest citizens live in fear of powerful gangs who may kill them if they complain to police or report crimes. By providing a virtually limitless source of money and influence to only people who are willing to break the law, prohibition has enriched and empowered the very worst elements of our society.
Prohibition encourages drug dealing and drug use.
If there is a lesson in creating public policy, it's that the world does not reliably work the way your good intentions expect it to. Consider the hypothetical case of a young drug user we'll call Bob. Bob has some significant emotional problems, and as a result has developed a substance abuse problem to self-medicate. One day, Bob discovers heroin, and realizes that it makes his problems go away, at least temporarily. Occasional use grows to regular use. The amount he needs greatly increases as he becomes tolerant of the drug. Faced with the exorbitant prices of a black market, Bob finds that he really can't afford this newly acquired taste. Under the prohibitionist vision of the world, this means that Bob will decide to stop using drugs. In the real world, this often means that Bob will start selling drugs. And why not? He knows the sources. He knows other users he can sell to. By becoming a dealer he can make some money to support himself while also getting considerably better per-gram prices on heroin as a larger scale buyer. So, our poor addict becomes a dealer. Now he helps keep heroin available on the street for new users to become hooked on. Eventually Bob gets caught by the police. Probably not on a big offense, just possession of a small amount with intent to distribute. It's a first offense, and after a few months in prison he's back on the streets. Now, what shall our young drug dealer do? He could realize the error of his ways and go strait...give up drugs and get a real job, perhaps go to college. But...he's a convicted felon. Who will hire him in any significant position? To make matters even worse, Bob goes right back to using drugs: For all the billions of dollars available to hunt down and imprison drug users, virtually nothing is spent on drug addiction treatment programs, and Bob has been released as screwed up and desperate for a way to make the world go away as ever. The system feels righteous and effective: They have caught and punished the evil drug offender. And Bob, untreated and now painted further into a corner in terms of ways out of the drug trade, goes back to using and dealing.
At the very least, we should have invested heavily in treating the mental health problems that led Bob to feel he needed an escape in the first place. Instead, everything the system did worked perfectly to further undermine his ability to live a sober, honest life and drive him back to the behaviors we were trying to discourage. Such is the perversity of America's current drug policies.
Prohibition is spending already thin American political capital.
From the earliest days, the US has believed that in order for prohibition to work, it had to be applied to the whole planet. Every nation had to sign on to the plan or those that didn't would become havens for production, the theory went (not without some justification.) In order to achieve this goal of universal prohibition, the US has leaned, sometimes heavily, on other nations. If a nation doesn't want to join our little holy war, we threaten to restrict trade and block aid programs run by the UN and IMF. Just this winter, US representatives visited Canada to give the locals a tongue-lashing about their relative tolerance of marijuana. Other nations have been even less cooperative, only grudgingly giving in to protect economic interests. Every time a country loosens draconian anti-drug laws or considers decriminalization of soft drugs like marijuana, the US sends out its representatives to shriek at them. America doesn't have as much international good will to spend as it once did; is an issue as insubstantial as marijuana decriminalization (which is an accomplished fact in many European nations with Canada likely to be next) worth making enemies over?
Prohibition is an attack on Democracy itself.
The self-anointed Drug Warriors often like to claim that they are simply doing what The People, in a legitimate exercise of democracy, wish them to do. Yet, at least in the case of marijuana, this is simply not true. In poll after poll, Americans have made their will clear: Non-violent petty offenders should not be arrested and jailed. Indeed, in the latest CNN poll, only 21% of Americans supported jailing people for small amounts of marijuana, with 72% calling for a fine instead. In the same poll, 80% believed that sick people should be able to use marijuana medically if prescribed by their doctor (which stands in sharp contrast to the DEA's vow to crush the medical marijuana initiatives of states like California.)
Other polls have only supported this trend. The clear majority of the American public thinks doctors should be able to prescribe marijuana. Why then do the Prohibitionists spit in the face of the will of the people? Why do they attack medical marijuana activists who are acting with the full support of state and local governments, as they did in the infamous case of Ed Rosenthal, who was legally growing marijuana under California state law for medical patients? (Ed was operating quite openly, and had even been deputized by the local government so he could legally handle controlled substances 'in the course of his duties.' The DEA arrested Ed for this, and at his trial the court didn't even allow him to mention why he had been growing the plants. Instead, he was portrayed as an organized crime figure and easily convicted. When the jurors learned of the deception, many of them angrily denounced their own verdict and called for Ed's release.)
So, why does the government defy the will of the people on this matter? Quite simply, because they believe they know better than we do, and as such, we should all just shut up and obey them. This is America? Land of the free? Government of, by and for the people? Not as long as the Prohibitionists get their way.
Next page: Results of Prohibition.