What Keeps the Failed “War on Drugs” Going?


Argentina’s federal court has bucked the U.S.-mandated war on drugs by decriminalizing personal drug use (link). Judges said that punishing drug users only “creates an avalanche of cases targeting consumers without climbing up in the ladder of [drug] trafficking.”  It is interesting that, while a number of South American governments have moved to decriminalize drug use, the mainstream press in North America has been completely silent. 

There can be no doubt that, after more than a century, prohibition of drugs has failed, though that was only acknowledged in the case of alcohol in the U.S.  Interestingly, the U.S. federal and state governments now ensure that every alcohol user has easy access to their drug of choice.  Alcoholic beverage quality is guaranteed by the government, the price is controlled by the government, and it is available at establishments almost everywhere under government license.  While many may assume addicts to alcohol can get treated easily, in the U.S. clinics are not easy to sign into and the cost can be high, possibly prohibitive without insurance.  The situation is tougher for those with addictions to other drugs, however.  North American users of “controlled substances” (drugs arbitrarily blacklisted by the government) are hunted down by the police, arrested, fined, and often jailed.  Their careers and lives are often ruined, and they are stigmatized for life.  Many avoid treatment because having drugs on your record can seriously impede your career.  With drug cartels waging real wars among themselves and against government police right on our borders, why do we stand for this?

The excuses for continuing the so-called “war on drugs” are worse than weak. The claim that the softer drugs lead to the harder ones has been disproven many times, and it is obvious that only the illegality of certain drugs puts them together in the hands of organized crime.  The claim that the illegal drugs do not have medicinal use has never been true, as almost all have seen medical use at some point, and those that haven’t have been researched.  Even some of the worst problem drugs such as methedrine were used heavily by the military in World War II (and since).

Governmental groups have incentives to keep prohibition in force. Given the never-ending epidemic of drug-based violence and organized crime activity, it is pretty likely that some drug money is finding its way into government, giving government the incentive to keep drugs illegal as a form of price support.  It has also been openly said that to discontinue the drug war would put a lot of law enforcement people out of work.  Does that mean putting a half million people in jail (at great cost to the taxpayer) and maintaining the bloated bureaucracy of the D.E.A. (also at great cost to the taxpayer) is economically justified?  Of course not.

Government has been part of the national drug problem. During the Iran-Contra scandal (link), CIA employee Eugene Hasenfas admitted to the press that the CIA had been flying loads of guns to the so-called “Contras” who were fighting to destabilize the Nicaraguan government of Daniel Ortega and bring it down, then flying the same planes to Panama to pick up loads of Columbian cocaine and fly them back to air fields in Florida and other Southern states, where they were unloaded by CIA employees.  At the same time, the CIA was selling U.S. missiles to Iran and putting the money from both operations into unmarked Swiss bank accounts.  A couple of scapegoats were found to take the blame (Admiral Poindexter and Ollie North), and the rest was swept under the rug.  That was only one of a number of incidents that showed that the CIA has been importing drugs into the U.S (link). since at least the Viet Nam war era, which certainly speaks to the U.S. government incentive to continue the taxpayer nightmare that is the “war on drugs” (link).

Repeal of prohibition would solve many problems. In a time when we have many, many serious challenges to face, the decriminalization of drug use in the United States would provide a huge economic benefit in tax revenues, and an even larger savings to the taxpayer in that we could stop building more jails.  The half million people who would probably get out of prison, and those no longer hindered in their careers and schooling, would be a boon to the economy as well.  It makes no sense to claim that putting each other in jail is a productive economic enterprise, as it is actually a drain on the economy, and the taxpayer, and is a part of a pattern of international crime perpetrated by the U.S. government.

A combination of propaganda and diverse economic incentives to government and both legal and illegal businesses keeps prohibition going. I dislike conspiracy theories, and believe that groups of people usually don’t get along well enough to avoid leaks by the dissatisfied, but I temper that belief with the knowledge that government agencies have the power to keep things secret more effectively and for longer periods of time than non-government groups.  This explains how the CIA have repeatedly been shown to be importing drugs into the US and yet escaped corrective action.  It also explains why law enforcement agencies have supported prohibition, and why drug companies support prohibition.  Police agencies, the CIA, drug companies, and organized crime families and cartels are only some of the groups with an incentive to support drug prohibition, and there is no reason to think that they are not lobbying heavily in Washington and promoting propaganda in an attempt to bolster public support.  Drug seizure laws, while creating a serious moral hazard and conflict of interest when law enforcement groups can sieze and sell property associated with drug arrests to fund their own operations, support prohibition at a local level.

July 2010 update: While state laws are changing, federal law is a major sticking point. Currently, while at least 17 states have decriminalized marjiuana, recognizing it as having legitimate medicinal uses, doctors are routinely forbidden from prescribing it by the clinics, hospitals, and other organizations that employ most of them.  Prescriptions come almost entirely from doctors in private practice, and one doctor I interviewed cited his requirement for voluminous and carefully managed records.  He said that during alcohol prohibition many doctors prescribed alcohol in various forms to patients, which was permitted under the laws.  He also said that after drug prohibition was instated in 1938 a lot of doctors, 28,000 was the number he gave, were imprisoned for continuing to precribe the newly controlled substances.  Needless to say, his concern for record keeping and his own compliance with state law when prescribing medicinal marijuana is justified.  When I asked my personal physician about medical marijuana, permitted in my state, he just laughed and said “I’m not going there.”  I imagine that the clinical organization he works for forbids going against the federal law, and wouldn’t be surprised if the AMA was against it as well.  Private corporate policies often cite the federal drug-free workplace act of 1992 as the source of their policies.  Currently an ex-Walmart employee is in a lawsuit in Michigan against his former employer, aided by the ACLU.  The Michigan Medical Marijuana Iniative specifically directs that no company can dismiss an employee for use of marijuana.

Marijuana, in particular, has been shown to be one of the safest medicines for treating symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, nausea, chronic pain, and lack of appetite. Many who have sought medical marijuana have relatively common problems such as chronic arthritis pain, for example, and are trying to avoid more powerful prescription drugs such as neurontin and oxycodone that have serious risks and side effects.  The new laws, written in the long-running atmosphere of propaganda about drugs, try to restrict licensing for marijuana use to those with only the most serious conditions, but there are many more patients whose condition is debatable under current standards but who have a viable reason for seeking medical marijuana.  Most state laws are still poorly defined, the population of potential patients is not well understood, and conflicts with the federal laws raise serious issues.

The facts will always eventually come out, though. They always do.  Please tell your elected representatives (and others) that the drug war has been a costly failure for too long, and you want it to end.  When you see bad things happening in association with drugs, please ask yourself: would this have happened this way if drugs were legal?  As always, I appreciate your comments.

Interesting reading:
Argentina Decriminalizes Drug Consumption, April 23, 2008, Juan Carlos Hidalgo, Cato-at-Liberty.org
The War on Drugs is Lost, July 1, 1996, National Review
War on Drugs, wikipedia.org
Basic Facts About the War on DrugsSchaffer Library of Drug Policy
30 Years of America’s Drug War, a Chronology, WGBH and PBS.org:Frontline,
The War on Drugs is a War on Our Youth,  April 12, 2008, Mathew Fogg, the Roanoke Times
Latin America: Argentine Court Decriminalizes Drug Possession in Buenos Aires, April 25, 2008, Drug War Chronicles
Drug War Clock, www.drugsense.org
Drugs in Portugal: Did Decriminalization Work?, Time Magazine

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2 responses to “What Keeps the Failed “War on Drugs” Going?

  1. I disagree with this post. It has an interesting argument and the author is sincere, but I disagree with it.

    We have lost a lot in the war on drugs. We have lost a lot of privacy. People put up with more meddling and abuse from the police now. Laws were changed to force banks to report “suspicious” activities and put the burden on law-abiding people to explain where people get their money.

    But I think this would be a dirtier, more violent, more crime-plagued country if most illegal drugs were legalized. I don’t want any more users or addicts than we already have. It should be hard and risky to find illegal drugs. And I think society – through its democratic government – has the right to be biased and prejudiced against which drugs it wants to criminalize. I don’t wany one more meth user ever.

    I don’t see how people could function in a world with so many dangerous drugs if they were legalized. Addicts can’t work – or at least most don’t. They don’t have to resort to crime to feed their addiction, but many of them choose to do so. How would this change if more dope was legal?

  2. Lyn – Thanks for your comment, and for the additional point concerning how much of our privacy we have lost due to drug prohibition. It makes one wonder just how much prohibition has been used to justify actions with ulterior political motives.

    Actually, if certain arbitrarily-chosen drugs were not illegal, there would be less money involved, and less money would mean less involvement of crime in general. Addicts to alcohol don’t have to steal because they can get it cheaply, with government-imposed quality and price controls, and can get free or low cost treatment if they desire it.

    Nobody wants more addicts than we already have, as they are people in trouble, and this is all the more reason to take away the legal risks and stigma that prevent them from getting the help they need. While society can make drugs illegal, nothing should be done under the influence of misinformation, which was and is definitely the case with illegal drugs. The comparison with how the drug alcohol is handled is a telling one.

    It is also untrue that addicts can’t work. Many addicts to alcohol, nicotine, and many other legal AND illegal drugs can and do work consistently and with good records. Some run into problems from time to time and have to seek treatment, and some can get that treatment easily (for alcoholism, for instance) while others can not, and the difference is usually in which drugs are addressed by prohibition.

    Also, if drugs were less expensive they would ruin less lives, drive fewer people to crime and violence to feed their addiction or protect their livelihoods.

    If drug prohibition was ended (here are a few ideas – I’m sure you can come up with more):
    1. Government could reap huge tax revenues from a system similar to that which currently regulates alcohol.
    2. Government would also be able to focus law enforcement on violent crime and security, for example, instead of ruining the lives of individuals and families.
    3. Organized crime would lose the financial incentive to import illegal drugs.
    4. Criminal gangs would lose the incentive to deal drugs and kill their competitors.
    5. Addicts could get help and remain productive members of society instead of being jailed and stigmatized for life.
    6. Our jails would no longer be overflowing, and the government would save billions on prison operations and the construction of new prisons.
    7. Less money would fund anti-government groups in Columbia, Afghanistan, and other countries.

    On the bad side, some law enforcement staff, prison guards, etc. might lose their jobs, but government would still have the huge savings and increased revenues with which to employ them to do jobs more beneficial to society, so that’s not really so bad at all.

    Thanks for your comment, Lyn. I always appreciate comments, as they generally clarify the topic.

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