War on Drugs – FAIL

Finally, an international commission, which included George Schultz has officially determined that the “war on drugs” has failed.  We’ve spent decades incarcerating users, invading other nations (Panama, Bolivia, Colombia), and the drug trade is stronger than ever.

Perhaps we need a new tactic that takes the violence out of the program? Rehabilitation is much cheaper than incarceration, even if we have to send a person to rehab a dozen times in just a few years!  And if we regulate drugs as we do alcohol and tobacco, we can use the revenue to pay for that rehabilitation.  As it is, we are deep in debt, and it is only getting worse with the drug war.

Daily Beast: War on Drugs

19 thoughts on “War on Drugs – FAIL

  1. This one is so tricky. It’s right up their with prostitution. Some people say if we regulate it, we don’t necessarily have to endorse it. But think of all the issues that will come out mere legalization. People showing up to work high, taking smoke breaks and smoking more than cigarettes – “It’s my legal right,” they’ll say. Not saying people can’t already show up drunk and face the consequences, but legalization of other narcotics will only add to the problem.

    At the same time, lives are ruined and we waste much in terms of liberty and treasure on running various drug agencies. But then again, if it is legalized, regulated and taxed, the incentive will always be there to cheat the regulation. Black markets exist wherever there is heavy regulation, and even in a legalized drug situation there would still be heavy regulation. So I don’t think it’s all one or the other. Because just as in countries where prostitution is legalized, and requires licensing there are black markets in the “sex industry” as well. Maybe we’ll take some of the sting out of the problem. But I think we’ll be trading one set of problems for a whole different set of problems.

    But I wholely agree on one issue — rehabilitation instead of incarceration. Of course, isn’t that what we’d like our prisons to do anyway? So my question is, why do we have to include legalizing and regulating together with rehabilitating? Can’t we keep it illegal with a focus on rehabilitation?

  2. I would have a problem with the government making money off of drugs. If something as benign as a speed limit can become treated as a source of revenue rather than public protection, I would hate to see drug regulations make the same transformation.

  3. I don’t think I’d favor legalization if only because it seems like there are middle positions that seem to give the best of both worlds. i.e. the de-militarization of the war on drugs including the SWAT raids not to mention the de facto civil war in Mexico as well as avoiding increasing the use of drugs due to legitimacy.

    All you have to do is treat it the way we do prescription drug abuse with non-pain killers. (This happens by the way, and before the DEA decided vicodine was the latest cocaine we handled pain killer abuse the same way) So it’s illegal but we just allow legitimate use the way we do say metadone. You can get the drugs, but only administered by a doctor under tight control. You tax the drugs but anyone can appear and the use is divorced from party and club culture. Those who do use in club culture are put under house arrest with ankle bracelets using GPS – let them work during the day but have proscribed places they can go and only allow them to stay at home after 7 PM.

  4. “And if we regulate drugs as we do alcohol and tobacco”

    Since alcohol and nicotine are drugs, and are comparably addictive and debilitating as many of the illegal drugs, we could rephrase your sentence as:

    “And if we regulate drugs as we do drugs and drugs”

  5. Clark,
    The problem is not everyone is using vicodine or oxy. Most illegal drugs include: marijuana, cocaine, meth, or heroin. And of course there are always the designer drugs, such as Spice. You can’t get these (with the exception of marijuana in some states) via prescription. A person addicted to any of these will continue being addicted. Ankle bracelets cannot stop a person from phoning in an order to their nearest dealer and having him drop it in the mail.

    Ending the military/police function on the war on drugs will not stop drug cartels from fighting each other. And inner cities still will have drive by shootings because of the drug trade.

    Even the prescriptions by doctors may be abused, as we now see in Florida, known as America’s prescription drug vendor.

    Alcohol prohibition created a violent environment where gangs competed. People still drank, including FDR from what I gather.

    In regulating alcohol today, people still drink, but at least some of the tax revenues can be used to help with rehabilitation, etc.

    Is there a more perfect methodology? I wish there were, but I just don’t see it. We can officially ban drugs all we like, but they will still come in. We can choose to just ignore the drug trade, but we’ll continue having drug cartels fighting each other in Mexico and on America’s inner city streets. However, if we treat them like we do alcohol, we immediately dismember the drug trade and the gangs that take in all the money. We ensure we have funds to pay for rehabilitation, as well as anti-drug campaigns (as we do with tobacco). We reduce the number of non-violent people in our jails by hundreds of thousands.

    Not a perfect solution, but definitely a workable one.

  6. Brian, good point. There are actually more people addicted and suffer illness from tobacco and alcohol than all other drugs combined.

    Yet we can raise the price of tobacco to the point where fewer kids use it, simply because it is too expensive. They do not seek a black market, and there are no violent gangs competing to sell cheaper cigarettes on the streets. That taxation allows us to influence people’s use, as we can have anti-drug campaigns in schools, television, etc., to reduce its usage.

  7. I’m simply not sure I want the government telling me what I should or shouldn’t consume. The FDA has so far played favorites to large pharmaceutical companies, and has legislated alternative medicines almost out of existence. They are an engine for increasing the profit of powerful industries, and protecting them from competition.

    Milk is “regulated,” rather than banned… but people still get thrown in jail for selling or consuming raw milk.

    Something tells me that we have a right to decide what we consume.

  8. “People showing up to work high, taking smoke breaks and smoking more than cigarettes – “It’s my legal right,” they’ll say. Not saying people can’t already show up drunk and face the consequences, but legalization of other narcotics will only add to the problem.”

    Uhm, no. A business can still have rules regarding consumption of drugs during work hours. As it stands now, most businesses have a rule against showing up to work drunk, and if you do, you can get canned pretty quickly. I don’t see any of these rules changing if we legalize narcotics.

    “Yet we can raise the price of tobacco to the point where fewer kids use it, simply because it is too expensive. They do not seek a black market, and there are no violent gangs competing to sell cheaper cigarettes on the streets.”

    Also not true. I remember hearing that New York, which has one of the highest cigarette taxes, has a black market for cheaper cigarettes. If you could buy a box of cigarettes for a couple bucks cheaper in New Jersey, then sell them for a buck cheaper than the New York price you could make a pretty penny.

    Lastly, we need to change something. The war on drugs has become an actual war in Mexico, and the gang problems in the inner cities are directly related to our Prohibitionist mind-set. It didn’t work for alcohol, and it doesn’t work for the other drugs.

  9. While I agree that the war on drugs has failed, believing that government revenues from controlling the substances will fund treatment is just silly. Taxes on alcohol and tobacco are not funding treatment for alcoholism or cures for cancer.

    Still, it would be interesting to see a complete study of likely implications of legalization, including impact on Mexico and inner-city violence.

  10. Wow, great link on Portugal Geoff.

    I think there are two simple reasons the failed war on drugs is still going strong. Whichever President decides to stop it will be crucified by the opposing party as being a pro-drug/anti-cop/anti-child/pro-crime loser. And I’m sure everyone loves the money they’ve been getting for years to fight this war.

  11. “There are actually more people addicted and suffer illness from tobacco and alcohol than all other drugs combined.”

    Isn’t this because more people use them? Because they are legal? And so, if cocaine, marijuana, and heroin were made legal, isn’t it logical that the serious side effects of these now illegal drugs would become more common? Seems a bad argument to legalize to me. It’s “because alcohol and tobacco are legal and bad, let’s legalize other stuff that’s bad!”

  12. BTW, as pointed out, there is a black market in cigs. Raise the taxes more, and there will be more of a black market.

    Ram, you say the war on drugs is targeting the users. _Some_ users are targets, the flagrant and obvious and easy-to-catch ones, but the WoD is actually targeting the distributors, much more so than the users, and even more so than the street level dealers.

    Street cops ignore the vast majority of users, and from what I’ve seen, cops also ignore the vast majority of street level dealers.
    (I’ve been told often that street cops don’t get involved in drug busts unless it’s blatant and in their face, they usually leave it to the narc squad.)

    In Indianapolis, rank-and-file street/beat cops ignore street level dealers unless they are just too obvious and ask to be arrested. The main reasons are: 1) there is not enough capacity in the CJ system to take care of all the street level dealers (we’d saturate city jails and state prisons pretty quickly with drug dealers), 2) when arrested street level dealers are replaced within 24 hours anyway, 3) due to the ongoing investigations into mid-level and higher distributors, street cops are forbidden to work at cross purposes with the investigations and operations into the mid-level and higher guys.

    In Indy, there is usually a county wide drug sweep once a year, and I think it’s mainly for show, as the players are all replaced in 24 to 48 hours.

    Drug culture works off of supply and demand. There is so much demand, that the money creates big incentives for dealers/distributors to step in and replace any arrested ones very quickly.

    Personally, I think the WoD could work if it really did target users and reduce the demand. Reduce/eliminate demand, and the dealers/distributors will _naturally_ go out of business with less (or no) customers.

    However, going after users in a serious manner would require huge investments in mass concentration camps or “treatment facilities”. Plus it would have to literally change the inner-city culture. It would have to target a big swath within a whole generation of inner city African Americans (where the highest concentrations of users are) from age 12 to almost age 40. Yes, there are white drug users and suburban drug users, and they’d have to be targeted too, but the percentages that the users consitute are much lower among caucasians. And even if the resources were distributed equally in targeting users of all races, based on the number of users, and where the users are, it would end up looking extremely racist, even if (and especially if) it could be done totally color-blind.

    Legalization would then increase the demand (being illegal keeps a lot of people from trying it.) If the price falls due to legalization, that would also tend to increase the demand (lowering the price barrier to experimentation). Then we’d have even more drug addicts.

    I’m afraid nothing can turn around this drug culture without painful or draconian measures. Current users of drugs will have to suffer so that the pain of continuing (or starting) use is greater than the pain of giving it up (or avoiding it in the first place). Punishment (or the consequences of use) will have to be increased for _users_ so that it has a deterrent effect on potential users who see what happens to drug users.

    Other countries have successfully prosecuted the war on drugs, such as Singapore. However, their measures are draconian. Very long sentences (and caning) for even the most casual users, and swift and sure execution, for all dealers. It was either Columbia or Venezuela who tried summary execution for drug users for a while back in the 70’s, and it actually worked in reducing drug user for a while.

  13. … that is, it worked until they stopped the summary executions, then usage went back up.

  14. Books, Singapore is an authoritarian island quasi-democracy half the size of the city of New York. Having been there several times, I can tell you it’s pretty easy to police. There is no comparison to the U.S. with its thousands of miles of borders.

    Legalizing drugs is simply cost-benefit analysis that anybody could do on a spreadsheet. How much do we spend on the war on drugs per year? $200 billion per year if you include state and local expenses. What would happen if you sold all drugs at Walgreen’s? Pharmaceutical companies would make pot and sell it in packages. Farmers would farm pot. Coke would be handled the same way. In theory, meth and heroin could also be handled the same way. Emotionally, this is very difficult to deal with, but if drugs were sold at Walgreen’s you could tax them and control them (just like we do today with many, many narcotics). $200 billion in govt cost gone overnight. We could start closing prisons rather than rushing to open new ones. Gangs would still exist in the slums, but they would be dealing in things other than drugs. Killings would be waaaaay down, both in the inner city and in Latin America. Yes, we may see more addicts, but if we concentrated on therapy rather than throwing them in prison we might get better results. Again, emotionally this has been very hard for me to deal with personally, but after doing a simple cost-benefit analysis it is clear to me that the cost of the drug war outweighs the societal cost of maintaining it.

  15. Geoff, I maintain that the $200 billion/annualy saved in law enforcement and criminal justice system would not be enough to both treat the present and _new_ addicts (new ones created due to legality of the drugs), plus compensate for all the increased societal damage (health costs and lost productivity) due to the increase in addicts.

    The culture of drugs is not a static closed system. Change one end of it, and you get tons of unintended consequences.

    I still say that summary execution of anyone caught with narcotics (user or dealer), and public caning of those caught with marijuana would be a much quicker and cheaper way to solve the drug problem.

  16. Bookslinger, who will all these new addicts be? Anyone who wants drugs now can easily obtain them.

    Geoff B., I came to the same conclusion you have twenty years ago — sad to see all the wasted money and wasted lives in the meantime, both in this country, but especially thanks to our drug war policies in third world countries.

    As for ldsphilosopher’s objection about the government making money off drug enforcement — they already are, and in startlingly corrupting fashion:


  17. Bookslinger,
    The drugs sold at Walgreens would be taxed, bringing in additional revenue that would go towards rehab and assisting struggling families.

    Rather than we have $200 billion going to a drug war that we are not and cannot win (without going to street executions), it would be better to not only save that $200 billion, but have the drug users financing their treatment every time they purchase drugs.

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