Let’s talk a bit about the War on Drugs

There’s been a lot of discussion of health care around here recently, and not nearly as much about the War on Drugs. That’s a shame. It’s at least as colossal and destructive a failure as health care, and it won’t change in any meaningful way without a massive public outcry. Make no mistake, though: We can end the War on Drugs, and end the catastrophic damage it is doing to our country and our society, in a virtual instant. All we have to do is legalize, regulate, and tax all drugs. 

Now don’t stop reading. I already know what you’re thinking, and I’m not a pot enthusiast or a user of illegal drugs. Honestly. I’m one of the rare few for whom “Just Say No” did the trick. In fact, I was a staunch opponent of legalization until a single presentation, made by a police officer, changed my mind. Stick with me for a few paragraphs, and I’ll see if I can win you over too.

For starters, you have to accept a few basic facts:

1. The War on Drugs, which began in 1971 under President Nixon, has cost the United States greatly: More than $1 trillion in tax dollars since beginning, and more than $40 billion each year.

2. In spite of all that expense, the War on Drugs has done nothing to curb the availability of illegal drugs, or demand for them. Drugs are more accessible than ever, and addiction as great a problem.

3. While drugs remain illegal, decisions about (a) who sells them and how, (b) how pure they are, (c) who can purchase them and where, and (d) where the revenues go, are all made by drug dealers.

Point 3, to me, is the key. Because drug sales policies have been left up to dealers, illegal drugs are manufactured in filthy unregulated farms and labs, and sold on the street at highly unpredictable levels of purity, often by children and to children. The revenues, and they are massive—the UN estimates more than $300 billion annually—go to drug dealers, to cartels, terrorist organizations and other organized crime. Estimates say 60% of funding of Mexican drug cartels comes from US sales of illegal marijuana.

The black market for illegal drugs in the United States is something we have absolute control over. We can end it in a day by legalizing drugs, as we have done in the past with alcohol, and with other activities. Have you ever heard of the “The Numbers Game?” Probably not, unless you’re a fan of old gangster movies. The Numbers Game is what the lottery was called, back before the government took it over, when the Mafia used to run it. Most Americans have probably never seen a bottle of moonshine, either, or a packet of black-market cigarettes. Once something is legal, even if it’s highly taxed and regulated, the black market dries up or completely disappears.

Instead of shutting down the black market and turning off the flow of funds to the drug dealers, cartels, and terrorists, however, the US continues to spend more than $40 billion annually enforcing the War on Drugs. Most of that, incidentally (more than $25 billion) is spent by the states, who must bear the cost of mass incarceration that is a direct result of drug law enforcement.

Since 1971, the population of US prisons has more than tripled, from roughly 750 thousand to more than 2.5 million. The Land of the Free presently has a higher percentage of its population incarcerated than any known society in the history of planet Earth—and the majority of these are drug-related. Each year more than 1 million Americans go to prison solely for non-violent drug-related crime, and many of the violent offenses are related to the drug trade. It’s become a massive financial drain on our country, and particularly on states strapped for revenue. Arizona, which has had an ongoing budget crisis for the better part of a decade, spends $1 billion annually on its prisons.

Aside from the financial cost, there is also the human cost to consider. Drug law enforcement has hit the black community harder than any other, to the point it’s been rightly labeled “the New Jim Crow.” Even though rates of drug use are consistent across race, the rates of arrest and conviction of blacks are shockingly higher than for other races. One in three African-American males will go to prison in his lifetime. The result has been to decimate communities, leaving families without fathers, and exacerbating the problem of drugs in these communities.

Imagine you’re a young black American, growing up in an inner-city community where mass incarceration and police harassment are a way of life. Your father is in prison for possession, and your mother can barely afford to make ends meet. The only person you encounter in your day-to-day life who has no trouble making money, no trouble buying nice cars and nice clothes, is the neighborhood drug dealer. When he or she finally gets busted, do you think anyone is going to hesitate to fill that niche?

So what is the solution? It should be obvious: Legalize everything. Regulate it, as we’ve done successfully with alcohol. Tax it. A study by the Cato Institute estimated, conservatively, that tax revenues from the hypothetical sales of drugs presently illegal in the US would approach $80 billion annually. Together with the $40 billion in savings from ending enforcement, that’s a net gain for the US of $120 billion each year.

I know what you’re probably thinking: Okay, Chris, so we save money, but end drug prohibition, and we’ll have a massive problem with addiction. Well, admittedly, this approach does nothing to address the issue of drug addiction, which is a serious one. Drug addiction is not only bad for the individual, but a good portion of all property crime is committed by addicts seeking a fix. However, return to the beginning of this argument, to basic fact #2: The War on Drugs has not done anything to curb the availability of the drugs it made illegal.

What would make a difference in addiction would be to treat it as what it is: a public health issue. With some of the $120 billion in new money the nation would have, we could develop low- or no-cost addiction services. Other nations have followed this model, and seen significant improvement in their problems with addiction. More importantly, not a single nation in the world that has legalized drugs has seen a significant increase in the number of people using those drugs. 

That’s an important fact, so I’m going to repeat it: Contrary to what you might expect, making drugs legal has not, in any other country, led to more people using them. Ergo, even under the present War on Drugs, everyone who wants to use drugs is already doing so.

Now, I’m almost done, but once more I bet I know what you’re thinking: Chris, okay, I understand legalizing weed—I mean, weed is less harmful than booze—but harder drugs? Cocaine? Meth? Heroine??

Here I can only respond the way Howard Wooldridge did when I asked the same question. Howard is a police officer with LEAP, and the man who made the presentation that changed my mind and turned me 180 degrees on the question of drug legalization.

“Tell me which drugs you want the drug dealers making all the rules about,” Howard said. “Tell me which ones drug dealers should have children selling on the street, at unknown levels of purity, and sending the money to the cartels and al Qaeda. Those are the drugs we’ll keep illegal.”

It’s past time we ended the War on Drugs—but the only way we do it is with a massive public push. This is an argument more people need to hear, so if you’ve read this far, and if I’ve succeeded in changing your mind, here’s what I’m asking:

Share this. Make this argument to other people, as I have done. See if they don’t realize what a mistake the War on Drugs is, and if they don’t change their view the way I did, and the way I hope you did. And then ask them to do the same thing.

Also, check out LEAP’s web site for some great resources. It’s a whole organization of police, FBI, and other law enforcement who have seen the War on Drugs first-hand, and realized what a catastrophe it is. They’re doing good work, and they could use your help.

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