As if it came as a surprise, the Global Commission on Drug Policy published a scathing report on Thursday which declared a failure the United States’ (and the world’s) so-called “War on Drugs,” Naturally, this declaration was met with some rebuke from the current administration and undoubtedly would have been met with similar reactions from previous ones as well. There are too many interests involved in keeping the “war” going to simply end it, even despite the obvious lack of success and unintended consequences that it has inadvertently caused.
The drug war is a legal justification for law enforcement entities to go after anyone and everyone who recreationally uses even the most harmless of substances, never mind that the vast majority of these folks do not harm anyone by exercising their individual rights to take into their bodies what they want. Much like the environment that was fostered during the Prohibition Era in America, the criminalization of said activities and substances is the very thing that has consequently made them profitable for organized criminal enterprises, empowering and encouraging increasingly ruthless behavior to obtain, maintain, and expand those enterprises.
According to King’s College London figures, the US has the highest documented incarceration rate per capita in the world, an incredible figure indeed when considering the numerous countries behind us on that list with well documented human rights issues and despotic regimes. This phenomenon is in no small way attributable to the drug war, and its ramifications on society in general and the taxpayer specifically are rather obvious. Even folks who are convicted of trivial crimes, such as possession of a single marijuana cigarette – a felony in Arizona, for example – will have their futures effectively ruined. Due to the nature of criminal convictions and their consequences, these people often have no choice upon release but to turn back to crime (and often more violent forms, such as robbery) to survive. This also affects the convicted user’s family as well, which is fiscally and socially harmed by the incarceration and sometimes forces them into criminal activity as well. Criminals who spend time in prison, even those convicted of non-violent crimes, often become violent (or more so) as a side effect of their time spent on the “inside.” This obviously creates a cycle of criminalization and violence in America where we are creating more dangerous offenders all the while making zero headway towards the original intent of the prosecutorial policy. According to United Nations’ estimates, consumption in the US has increased considerably between 1998 and 2008 despite these convictions: opiates by 34.5%, cocaine by 27%, and cannabis by 8.5%.
This certainly does not seem like a worthwhile tradeoff, especially when considering that whenever major criminal enterprises or their leadership are hampered or removed, other groups and individuals readily fill the power vacuum – a scenario known as the “balloon effect.” This effect is singularly made possible by the staggering profits that can be made from such activities. While America is undeniably proficient at prosecuting the “little fish,” this approach neither diminishes demand for the substances nor damages international criminal organizations’ abilities to continue their operations as a result.
I believe people have a right to take into their bodies whatever they want, even if it is potentially deadly to them. We generally embrace this approach with other harmful substances, such as tobacco, alcohol, prescription and over-the-counter drugs, and certain foods. I personally do not take drugs nor would I even if it was legal to do so, and I suspect that most people share this sentiment. It is because of this point that I think that the purported rationale that the government must prevent people from taking drugs to preserve society is nonsense. Having said all of this, I do not condone or support taxpayer-funded subsidization of these habits or their inevitable personal consequences (a point I do not share with the commission’s recommendation). As much as I believe in individual freedom I believe too that personal responsibility is the required counterpoise that tempers and balances it.
As the report points out, it is completely understandable that the architects of the flawed policy devised such an ineffectual approach 40 years ago. These policymakers recognized a legitimate problem and decided to do something about it – albeit with no empirical data or informed experience to help correctly frame the solution. What is not acceptable is that we have embraced what is known as “escalation of commitment” in the face of now-available evidence that proves that the approach in question causes more problems than it solves. Ultimately, a different course must be explored. We must stop investing so much time, effort, and money in focusing on inconsequential recreational users of drugs and focus instead on education, personal responsibility, and voluntary treatment as a means of prevention. We must focus on the truly violent criminals by shifting the current incarceration perspective from rehabilitation back to punishment (which is only tenable if the prisons are not chock-full of non-violent small fish). Finally, we must cripple the criminal enterprises by removing the profitability from their activities. Alcohol and tobacco enterprises have demonstrated that by legalizing and regulating the drug market we can make these wares available without risk of prosecution, thereby virtually eliminating the black market for them and effectively undermining the drug traffickers’ incentives to engage in the daring and violent behavior that is so common today.