Costs and Effects
There is certainly good reason to believe that a very large part of the historical motivation to pursue prohibition was neither honorable, nor even rational. However…that doesn’t really matter. During the early industrial age, for example, a theory emerged that garbage and waste produced a gas that was causing illness in unclean areas. Later, we came to understand that this theory was incorrect; that the real culprits were bacteria, etc. that was living in and on the waste. However, this incorrect theory inspired people to greatly improve sanitation. Cities underwent major cleanups, handling of sewage and trash greatly advanced…and the people became healthier for it. Sometimes, people stumble upon good ideas for the wrong reasons, but a good idea is still a good idea. So, even if America’s motivation to outlaw drugs was largely based on racial, religious, and cultural bigotry, prohibition might still have been the right thing to do. In the end, the answer doesn’t depend on whether you are philosophically opposed to drug use or not. The right or wrong of drug prohibition quite simply rests in whether or not the cost (imprisoning people, heavy spending on law enforcement, etc.) has been worth the benefit (reduced drug use, we are told.)
As often seems to be the case with government policies, there have been vastly more dollars given to fighting the ‘drug war’ than to actually determining if the approach was working. The US government has at least funded some research aimed at determining the costs of drug abuse to society. The most comprehensive study, prepared by the Lewin Group, dates from 1992 with an update performed for 1998.
The Lewin group estimated the total cost of illegal drug abuse in the US at $143 billion for the year 1998. If we extrapolate to 2003, the current cost would be close to $190 billion/year. That puts the cost to the economy at over $600 for every man, woman, and child in the US, every year, which sounds rather horiffic…but before you sign onto the Prohibitionist band wagon in horror, let’s look at the details.
According to this study, the breakdown of expenses is thus:
Most categories are self-explanatory; “medical costs” is the cost of treating illness associated with drug use, “Lost productivity due to incarceration” represents what drug offenders could have been contributing to the economy if we hadn’t locked them up, and so forth. Rather more mysterious is “crime careers”. After a bit of digging, I discovered that they’re referring to the money people could be making working ‘real’ jobs if they weren’t busy selling drugs, working as prostitutes, burglarizing people’s homes to afford drugs and so forth.
Expense to society.
The first thing of note are the numbers on crime, since this includes property losses and injuries/lost productivity of victims; this amount represents true, out-of-pocket expenses for somebody: An injury was inflicted and somebody wound up with a bill. This ‘hard’ cost of illegal drug use amounts to about 1.7% of the total amount claimed (about $2.4 billion in 1998.) This is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but it represents only about $8 per person living in the US per year, and could have been covered by a less than 1% tax on just cocaine sales.
The second category of true expenses (not just theoretical unrealized potential productivity) is medical costs resulting from drug use. Although there are some injuries (such as from driving under the influence, etc.) most ($4.2 billion) of this $5.7 billion tab was due to infectious diseases caught by using dirty needles. This expense has been on the decline as needle exchange programs have grown in availability (often over the violent objections of the True Believer Prohibitionists, who seem to think people will be much more willing to become or stay heroin addicts if there are clean syringes available.) It’s unclear how much of the burden of these medical costs is born by users vs. charities and public services.
The Lewin Group found that drug use was not a major strain on social services; they estimate additional expenses of about $250 million dollars for 1998 (about a dollar per US citizen.) This number seems a bit low; the report doesn’t go into details in what they included in this category.
Drug treatment and anti-drug ‘education’ (it surely doesn’t deserve to be called that) programs accounted for an additional $7.1 billion.
Where this whole analysis takes on an air of accounting slight-of-hand is when they assign values to “lost productivity.” These are not costs per say in the sense that your tax dollars had to be handed over to somebody to cover these amounts; rather, they are estimates of ‘what might have been’ had all drug users been completely sober average citizens. The total of these ‘lost productivity’ categories is about $94.5 billion. The components of these unrealized potential earnings are: $16.6 billion for premature death (ie. if a person might have earned $40,000 a year for the next thirty years, but died of a drug overdose, that’s considered a $1.2 million ‘loss’); $23.1 billion from illness (not working for any reason from being hung over to dying of AIDS); $24.6 billion for “crime careers” (‘lost’ earnings because addicts were pursuing illegal trades instead of flipping burgers); and $30.1 billion lost potential earnings from incarceration (people who would have been out working for a living, but are unable to do so because they’re in prison on drug charges.)
On a purely economic basis, it makes good sense to consider reductions in productivity as a negative impact on the economic system as a whole. However, the drug war is based on the theory that users should be arrested because they are harming society, not because they may, due to drugs, not work as hard or as long or make as much money as they otherwise might. If a person makes $25k a year instead of $35k a year because heavy pot smoking made them less productive, it may be unfortunate…but as long as they are fully self-supporting, I don’t believe such an argument is a defensible basis for treating them as criminals.
Also noteworthy is that large amounts of these ‘lost productivity’ numbers are actually the result of the drug war itself. The largest segment, lost earnings due to incarceration on drug charges, is almost entirely caused by prohibition. Likewise, the sizeable portions of unrealized potential earnings caused by illness and deaths associated with drugs are not fixed costs; sincere harm reduction efforts focused on helping users and abusers use drugs as safely as possible could greatly reduce these costs (as has happened through needle exchange programs.) At one point ten thousand Americans a year were catching HIV through dirty needles; this no doubt has greatly contributed to the “death and illness” categories.
Prohibition and law enforcement costs.
The Lewin Group identifies $22.5 billion of expenses for prisons and court costs for drug-related charges as well as for DEA and other ‘supply reduction’ programs (spending in these areas has greatly increased in the years since this study.) They also list $9.1 billion for “police protection.” What is meant by this isn’t entirely clear; presumably much of this expense stems from the constant pursuit of drug offenders.
Contemplation of the Account Balance.
Does prohibition make economic sense? For the first comparison, let’s ignore the idea of ‘lost potential earnings.’ I want to be fair to the prohibitionists, so I’ll give them a very generous set of assumptions: First, let’s assume that all those police costs are from secondary crime prevention/solving, with none of it actually spent on chasing and arresting drug offenders. Then let’s assume that every penny of the drug treatment programs and every penny of drug user’s medical expenses is paid by the public, none of it by the users themselves. Then let’s assume that no victim of a drug-related crime is ever compensated, no fines are ever paid by drug offenders, and that their property is never seized and sold. And just to make sure we don’t underestimate how bad drugs are, let’s assume that a more harm-reduction oriented approach would not reduce any of these expenses (in spite of all evidence to the contrary.)
Under these assumptions, the total cost to society in 1998 from illegal drug use was roughly $24.4 billion. In the same year, we spent about $22.5 billion just on court, prison, and interdiction efforts. Based on this model, if we completely legalize all drugs today, with no effort made to educate or help people use more safely, with no additional effort made to improve treatment programs, with no taxes collected on drug sales, with no additional controls such as age restrictions at the point of sale, no oversight of drug purity, just throw the floodgates wide to every drug dealer and criminal organization to run things….then drug use would still have to almost double, across the board, for prohibition to make even minimal economic sense.
If we do want to include the idea of unrealized potential earnings, the picture is much the same; lost earnings from people in prison on drug charges are almost as high as the total ‘losses’ from drug-related injury and premature death. The Lewin group doesn’t try to assign causal connections to their “crime careers” category, but obviously, if the drug trade is legal than you don’t get to count people working as drug dealers as a ‘lost’ segment of the economy (if you ever could.) That’s also assuming my extraordinarily generous set of starting assumptions. If harm-reduction (education, quality control of drugs, clean needle programs, etc.) really can reduce harm to society, then that would produce an additional decrease in the cost of drug use. Likewise, much of the police costs involved in drugs are no doubt actually for chasing drug offenders, not just from drug-related crimes. There is also the issue of profits from the drug trade; it should be fairly easy to realize perhaps $20 billion/year in profits from taxes on drugs. (According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Americans spent about $67 billion on illegal drugs in 1998, down from a high of $154 billion in 1988, reflecting both reduced usage of cocaine and plummeting prices for cocaine and heroin.)
All of this leaves us with a fairly simple question: If we do legalize drugs, how will usage levels be affected? If there is not a huge increase of use and addiction, then ending prohibition is the economically responsible choice. (The Prohibitionists would no doubt point out that the cost of drugs is not purely in dollars, and I agree. I suggest they ask the 1.5 million Americans they arrested last year on drug charges who will now be less able to get jobs and unable to get student aid for college what they think of the ‘intangible’ benefits of prohibition.)
Grilling Sacred Cows: Prohibition’s Impact on Drug Use.
The prohibitionists argue that yes, perhaps the cost of waging war against your own citizen’s private lives is expensive, but it would be far worse if we didn’t. Without Prohibition (the Prohibitionists claim) drug use would run out of control: Prohibition is the only thing standing between us and a nation drowning in drug abuse. So…what impact has prohibition had on levels of drug use?
The Netherlands experiment.
OK, I stuck in the ecstasy use results as well out of personal interest (the Netherlands appears to be the heart of the world’s ecstasy trade, at one point producing as much as 80% of the world’s supply according to one DEA estimate.) They make more, purer, stronger, and cheaper ecstasy tablets than pretty much any other country…good pills can be had there for a few dollars apiece (as opposed to $15-$30 in the USA.) Indeed, the Netherlands is constantly accused of being ‘soft on drugs’ by the US. So, how is this possible? One of the most sacred premises of the drug war says that levels of drug use depend on price and availability, yet these results don’t seem to support that conclusion.
Perhaps even more striking are the results for marijuana. In spite of marijuana being openly and legally available in the Netherlands, considerably fewer of their young people currently use it, or have ever used it! How is such a thing possible if, as the prohibitionists claim, having marijuana illegal is the only thing that keeps us all from turning into unrepentant potheads?
I would suggest several factors. First, by outlawing drugs, the government has made them the ‘forbidden fruit’. Under prohibition, smoking pot is ‘cool’. It’s counterculture. Rebellious. Courageous. A statement. Under legalization, it’s just another unhealthy dumbass waste of your time and money. By effectively legalizing marijuana, the Netherlands has kept it in its place, countering ready and legal availability by denying it the prestige of government persecution.
It is clear than legalization of marijuana in the Netherlands has not caused runaway use. Even as adults, a person in the Netherlands is about half as likely as an American to be a pot smoker, in spite of our having arrested nearly 750,000 people for marijuana in 2001 alone. For all the lives disrupted and destroyed, for all the billions of dollars and fervent chest-beating by politicians, there is no evidence that America’s war on marijuana has had even the slightest positive impact on levels of drug use. That’s a pretty radical idea for most people, but…these are the numbers. If you can find a justification of marijuana prohibition in this or any other data, let me know.
Meanwhile in the US, the government continues to study substance use by young people. In the latest Monitoring the Future study (2002), 89% of high school seniors report that it would be “fairly easy” or “very easy” for them to get marijuana. So, if we really want to give the Prohibitionists the benefit of the doubt, we might say that they are keeping marijuana away from about 10% of young adults. (By the time they graduate high school, over half of American kids will have smoked marijuana.)
Harm Reduction Nations vs. Prohibitionist Nations.
The UN has dedicated a great deal of effort to tracking the drug trade around the world, including gathering information on usage rates of many drugs from numerous countries. Here are some of the most recent results (numbers in parenthesis indicate the age range studied and the year of the study; percentages are of people who used the drug in question within the past year.)
You may ask why the Netherlands, where high-grade marijuana flows like water, legally and openly, has had so much better luck containing marijuana use than the US has? Or compared to the United Kingdom, which has traditionally marched virtually in lock-step with American drug policy? This is not necessarily evidence that prohibition has increased use, but it’s certainly a damning blow to the prohibitionist belief that levels of drug use are significantly determined by legality. (Average price of marijuana in the Netherlands was about $5 per gram, vs. $10 per gram in the US.)
I can hear the prohibitionists, squealing in protest: “Respect for the laws stops people from using drugs! If you legalize pot, they’ll have no reason not to become potheads!” Well, I have a wake up call for these simple-minded villains: American popular culture loves marijuana. Sure, the law says no, but our friends, the movies, MTV, and everybody else says yes, and in the end, culture is infinitely more powerful than the moralizing condemnation of balding legislators. That is why the Netherlands has kept usage to half the rate of
the US in spite of de facto legalization; they have returned control of drug use from impotent government regulations to social pressures and expectations, which are much harder to dodge than the law. The US government can never shift the tide of popular culture’s opinion of marijuana as long as they demonize and persecute it. They, the Prohibitionists, made marijuana special. They’ve done it by declaring ‘thou shall not because we say so’. They’ve done it by turning it into a culture war instead of just a questionable lifestyle/health decision.
In spite of a more lax policy towards the drug, in spite of a virtually limitless local supply of high-quality low-cost pills, the Netherlands had considerably less MDMA (‘ecstasy’) use than the US and UK, those eternal partners in the great Drug War. (The UN reports an average per-pill price in the US of $27 for 2000. Recently prices in the Netherlands have reached around $3.)
Opiates (heroin, morphine, etc.)
The US did far worse than the Netherlands with amphetamines as well…but at least they finally they pulled ahead of the UK, right? Well…
There’s the explanation. The US didn’t doesn’t have notably fewer stimulant users; Americans are just more likely to be using cocaine instead of amphetamines. (Cocaine was also more expensive in the US; $82 per gram vs. $61 in the Netherlands.)
Exporting the Drug War: Foreign Supply Reduction Efforts
Lest we forget yet another front in the American led drug-war, let’s see how we’re doing trying to stop the flow of drugs coming into the country from overseas.
From powering the Disco era at the height of Yuppie excess to helping make future US presidents the life of the party, America has had a long love affair with cocaine. In recent years, the US has aggressively pursued eradication efforts in South America, helping to spray herbicides on coca plantations, funding and equipping the local government troops, and providing advice.
If we define success as being able to keep the price of cocaine from rapidly declining, then the US effort has been a success. Still, the past decade saw almost a 40% decline in wholesale prices. Average purity has, according to the DEA, declined modestly in recent years due to more restrictive regulations of chemicals used to process the coca leaves.
Arguably one of the most dangerous, addictive, and socially costly illegal drugs, controlling the heroin trade has long been a priority for the US. In recent years, opium production in South America has created an explosive increase in purity and decrease in prices for heroin in the US:
As you can see, wholesale prices have been cut to a third of what they were just a decade ago, reflected a greatly increased supply within the US. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Domestic Monitor Program the average purity of heroin in the US at the street level has gone from a low of 3.6% in 1980 to 36.8% in 2000 (purity has been fairly stable in recent years.)
The Prohibitionist Religion
We have been offered the Prohibitionist’s central belief, that making something illegal must greatly reduce use, as a statement of Faith. We are simply expected to embrace it as a ‘self-evident’ truth. Does Prohibition reduce drug use? “Of course, it’s obvious that it must!” But when examined in detail, it’s anything but obvious. ‘Soft on drugs’ nations have not been overrun by drug abuse. Fanatically anti-drug governments like the US have some of the most out of control drug abuse problems on earth. We hemorrhage cash to pay for a solution that’s been more expensive than the problem, our prisons are crammed, our rights and Constitution are trampled on, and for what? A statement of faith that has never delivered on its claims. I can find no evidence to support the conclusion that American-style Prohibition has had any beneficial impact on drug use or harm to our society from drug use; indeed, prohibition has caused grievous harm. Unquestioning blind faith may be fine for a cult, but it’s a wretched basis for public policy.
Prohibition has already reached its high-water mark; the perennial declarations of various governments that they will ‘win the drug war’ within a certain number of years are nothing more than ignorant delusions. They cannot win the drug war because a large minority of people want drugs. Any reduction in the supply merely increases the profits, motivating traffickers and producers to escalate to ever-greater extremes of ingenuity and violence to defend and expand their share of the trade.
An ambitious person could spend a few hundred dollars on an airline ticket to Europe, pick up a thousand ‘ecstasy’ tablets for a dollar or two each, Fed-Ex them to an accomplice in the US (lovingly vacuum-packed and scrubbed down to prevent detection by dogs), and sell them off stateside for as much as $25+ a pill. Many people can’t resist that sort of profit potential, and as long as there are buyers, there will be people willing to roll the dice for a chance at easy wealth. Trying to stop the drug trade by attacking users is vicious and unproductive. Trying to stop it by chasing smugglers and dealers (and even labs) is as pointless as trying to piss up a flagpole; reduced supply = increased profits = new recruits to the trade to restore supply. God himself couldn’t beat that market dynamic. Even the Communists were eventually bright enough to realize that capitalism is an unstoppable force; why can’t the Prohibitionists figure it out?
The Costs of War Against Your Own People: Negative Impacts of Prohibition
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 straight…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.
“The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) opposes criminal prohibition of drugs. Not only is prohibition a proven failure as a drug control strategy, but it subjects otherwise law-abiding citizens to arrest, prosecution and imprisonment for what they do in private. In trying to enforce the drug laws, the government violates the fundamental rights of privacy and personal autonomy that are guaranteed by our Constitution.”
–ACLU Position Paper
“Libertarians, like most Americans, demand to be safe at home and on the streets. Libertarians would like all Americans to be healthy and free of drug dependence. But drug laws don’t help; they make things worse. The professional politicians scramble to make names for themselves as tough anti-drug warriors, while the experts agree that the “war on drugs” has been lost, and could never be won. The tragic victims of that war are your personal liberty and its companion, responsibility. It’s time to consider the re-legalization of drugs.”
–Libertarian Party Platform
“The long federal experiment in prohibition of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and other drugs has given us crime and corruption combined with a manifest failure to stop the use of drugs or reduce their availability to children.”
“So long as large sums of money are involved – and they are bound to be if drugs are illegal – it is literally impossible to stop the traffic, or even to make a serious reduction in its scope.”
“Legalizing drugs would simultaneously reduce the amount of crime and raise the quality of law enforcement. Can you conceive of any other measure that would accomplish so much to promote law and order?”
–Milton Friedman, Nobel Prize winning economist
“Criminal penalties have clearly failed to prevent widespread use of marijuana… Law and health are two entirely separate issues.”
“Government exists to protect us from each other. Where government has gone beyond its limits is in deciding to protect us from ourselves.”
-President Ronald Reagan
“Let justice be done, though the world perish.”
-Ferdinand I – Motto adopted in 1530s