The War on Drugs is Lost

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.


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  1. #1 by Antonio on June 20, 2011 - 9:38 AM

    Being a police officer I see the users on a daily basis, and the problems that these “harmless” drugs cause. A good example of why legalization would not work is K2, Spice, and other “legal” marijuana substitutes. They are actually more dangerous than marijuana but were legal. Being legal, and with only a few places holding the monopoly on their sale, the price was sky high but people still spent what little money they had to get this legal version of marijuana. Then we got crime here in our town with people burglarizing places to get K2. After that followed the overdoses and at least one death (yes, someone actually died from smoking a synthetic version of marijuana!).

    Legalization would mean more addicts, thus more crime to feed said addiction, and the organized crime that already has the monopoly in the market would not give it up! There would just be more crime as they fought to keep their monopoly.

    • #2 by The Observer on June 20, 2011 - 6:19 PM

      Certainly, you may be right. None of us can predict the future which is why it is so important to scrutinize the past when making far-sweeping social, civic, and legislative decisions and policies. To this end, and as I pointed out, Prohibition has served as perhaps the best historical indicator to the point that legalization does not necessarily lead to more addiction, nor does it necessarily create more problems in society. In fact, the overwhelming lesson to be learned from such history is that the attempt to deny people what, in the end is ultimately undeniable, creates many more problems than it solves through increased criminal risk/reward associated with the demand. The report which served as the basis for my post points out quite clearly how countries with less austere drug policies do not, in fact, possess greater environments of addiction and drug-related crime.

      I have never posited that drugs were harmless, just that we have a natural right to do what we want with our bodies provided we do not infringe upon another’s rights with our actions. This is true of cigarettes, alcohol, and even prescription drugs. Let’s face it, Taco Bell and McDonald’s fall into this context as well. Addiction is not so much a direct result of the drug as it is the individual’s susceptibility to it. This addiction manifests regardless of what our laws are. I would argue that addiction to unhealthy foods are much more harmful to society as a whole, when considering its impact to America’s health care costs, than drugs are.

      The United States has, arguably, the strictest drug laws in the history of the world and we also have among the highest concentrations of drug-related convicts. This may be an analogous argument of the chicken and the egg, but as a police officer I am sure you recognize also that once someone’s doors are closed off to them through a criminal conviction they often return to much more dangerous crime once released from prison, as a means to get by. With unemployment for non-criminals in the tanks, I do not realistically accept the argument that a man convicted of possessing a marijuana cigarette for recreational use is likely to obtain gainful (and legal) employment. I know you did not say as much, but I am just thinking out loud, so to speak…

      Thank you for your perspective on this topic. I am sure that the third party reader is better able to make their own decisions with varying points of view to consider – which was the ultimate reason for this post!

  2. #3 by Benjamin on July 19, 2011 - 4:54 PM

    What we have here and I submit for your consideration is a failure to understand the enemy and ourselves, combined with a failure to learn from the past. Durring Alcohol Prohibition in the United States criminal gangs rose to supply alcohol. In an moment of insanity the people passed the amendment that led to alcohol prohibition one day and the next ran out to buy as much as they could drink. At least in regard to drugs it took a while for the people to develop a taste for illicit drugs in quanity as we do today.

    I also propose that the drug war is an economic, political and law enforcement problem with a military solution only to buy time to enable law enforcement to have a level playing field as the gangs with thier drug profits have created a shadow government with an armed forces to enforce their will.

    The tragedy of Mexico is that the problems are deffered until later, while there are many politicians there are few if any statesmen who are looking to the future. Take the illegal immigration problem. In Mexico many earn a daily wage of 5.00 a day and in some areas less. So Mexico traditionally has encouraged its people to go north to find work and these workers send money back home to help family creating a revunue stream. Not too long ago the Mexican government sponsored the printing and distribution of a pamphlet that insturcted on how to come north, evade capture and blend in. Doesn’t seem like a solution to me, that instead of devloping your own country to just blame the Americans for exploiting you and encourage your people to go north. Now we have those who beginning in the 1970s maybe even earlier who saw the chance to make money growing, transportating and selling drugs to the Americns who pay well. It is estimated that 32-40 Billion a year profits flow into Mexico. Unable to see the threat to their national interest the Mexican government looks the other way. When it comes to drugs they say it is a matter of supply and demand, IF you Americans did not have the demand there would be no drug problem. But when it comes to weapons we are responsible because supply and demand doesn’t work both ways? Analysts at looked at the reported captured arms and discovered that while arms did have an American origin it wasn’t the lions share, rather that Gutamaula, Mexico and South Korean arms were captured (to name a few countries) but is easier to blame America for everything instead of realizing that this is a growing threat to the national interrest of Mexico.

    Just as the gangs of Chicago used their profits to apply ecconomic and political leverage so too are the drug gangs of Mexico. Both nations are fighting foes who mistake the rule of law for weakness and professionalism for fear? I remind you that arresting and putting on trial gang leaders is not easy. Al Capone guilty of many crimes ranging from extorsion to murder went to jail for income tax evaision. At this point in time IF the Mexican government would work on developing its own economic infrastucture to take back political control of the country then and maybe then they would be able to turn back the tide? I cannot condem the guy who not wanting to go north to find work but has a family to house, feed, clothe, etc takes the drug lord’s money when there is no vialble alternative. Most do not want to be rich but to have a living wage that supplies the basics. Many of those who come to America are proof of this for the majority are law abiding workers (aside from illeagaly immigrating to the United States).

    I can see the police officers point, but I suppose that before prohibition of alcohol was repealed you had the same issues brought up as well?

    As far as coruption goes, the Mexican drug lords are recruiting people with clean records to join not just Mexican but American law enforcement orginizations and using blackmail to suborn as well. One border patrol agent was given a file that showed not only his daily activities but his wife and his daughters school scheule to include teachers name, time she went on recess and what she had for lunch with the message “Play ball because it would be tragic if something were to happen to your wife and daughter” Anyone can be brave when threatened but to have your loved ones made targets unless you play ball, after all you will be paid good money to look the other way and have a long life.

    I could go on, but in short we are at war with ruthless individuals who are using the bickering between the United States and Mexico to prosper and rampant denial on the part of both nations to get their way.

    Comments welcome, I do not claim to have the answer but I ask all of you to think about this and lets get together to work for a solution.

    • #4 by The Observer on July 19, 2011 - 6:26 PM

      Welcome back. I can appreciate the plethora of logistical, prosecutorial, and political challenges that you have covered in your evaluation but they all still focus largely on the symptoms of the disease rather than the root cause of it.

      I maintain that drugs are only a means for organized criminal elements to obtain wealth because they are an insanely profitable opportunity. The cartels and drug dealers are not pushing these items because of ideological or convictional reasons. If sugar was illegal and people still demanded it there would be an accompanying illegal sugar trade to rival the current topic of discussion, you can bet. To that end, it is a nonetheless easier problem to combat than terrorism, for example, because we do not have to change the ideals and convictions of the perpetrators long-term but simply have to address the profitability of the thing itself. The very fact that these are banned substances in America is the driving force behind their profitability, the degree of which is ultimately what justifies the inherent risks and savagery of the trade. As much as people do not want to hear it the truth is that the illegality of the substances is the greatest causal factor to this quagmire because without it the costs of the drugs themselves simply would not yield sufficient profits to make the intensely organized and brutal activities we currently see worthwhile. If people had a safer, cheaper option to obtain the drugs – which all measurable indicators suggest they will attempt to do anyway – such as a pharmacy (I chose a pharmacy purposefully to draw intentional parallels) or their own backyards, I find it nonsensical to think they would not pursue those avenues instead of back-alley dealings with shady and dangerous individuals. And beyond the domestic violence associated with drug dealing, what would be the motivation for rival drug cartels to war amongst themselves and with the Mexican (and other) government(s) once the demand has shifted from illegal street peddling to those aforementioned legal, cheaper, and safer alternatives? To echo previous points you and I have both made, we do not see people buying their booze from rumrunners and bootleggers anymore which is perhaps the best historical evidence to support this approach.

      From a personal perspective, I view drug use like I do many other things we are exposed to in life – I do not condone it or agree with it on a moral level but it is nonetheless a free person’s choice to engage in activity that does not infringe upon the natural rights of others. While police (who incidentally have a direct financial stake in ensuring the illegality of such activity) and others will insist that drugs do indirectly cause harm to the innocent bystander, so to speak, that is simply not entirely genuine in my opinion. It is the government-induced profitability that prompts the already illegal activities – the killings, beatings, and so on – that are necessary to sustain the illicit enterprise itself that results in these unfortunate casualties.

  3. #5 by Benjamin on July 22, 2011 - 4:39 PM

    Well simplified it comes down to this, tell us DO NOT and we have to. Classic example when in the Garden, God sets the man in the garden “to work it and watch over it,” permitting him to eat from all the trees in the garden except the Tree of Knowledge, “for on the day you eat of it you shall surely die.” Well the fruit was eaten. Which brings me to this observation, for some reason some of us are drawn to the forbidden. While those who supply us our desires are not necessarily good or moral. The free market exists and will supply us our desires either in the open over the counter or under the table via the black market. But it seems the black market is more profitable because you can charge more once the item is forbidden. In this world while we respect the moral and ethical many of us follow the rich to see how they did it and imitate them. After all with money comes power, and no one asks you how you got rich and so some who don’t deserve it become role models.

    Why else the continueing Facination with Al Capone who many know yet mention Chesty Puller, Lou Diamond, Carlos Hathcock and get a puzzled look on many faces.In February 2006, a resolution recommending a memorial be erected to honor Pappy Boyington for his service during World War II was raised and defeated at the University of Washington (Boyington’s alma mater) during a meeting of the Associated Students of the University of Washington’s Student Senate. Some people questioning the widely-held assumption that all warriors and acts of war are automatically worthy of memorialization. The story was picked up by some blogs and conservative news outlets, focusing on two statements made by student senators during the meeting. One student senator, Ashley Miller, said that the UW already had many monuments to “rich, white men” (Boyington was of Sioux ancestry and not rich); another, Jill Edwards, questioned whether the UW should memorialize a person who killed others, summarized in the minutes as saying “she didn’t believe a member of the Marine Corps was an example of the sort of person UW wanted to produce. Hmm I am off the subject but it ties in with the type of role model our young have to emulate. If all they have is drug selling and using people who make lots of money and are seen as rebels should we be surprised?

    I have a philosophy that has Jeffersonian influence to name one influence. If it does not break my leg or pick my pocket? go for it, because my rights end where yours begin. In one way the drug laws reminds me of Animal Farm where the pigs establish laws for all to follow with exceptions for the pigs? All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others ring a bell? In 1983 I was passing through Washington DC and watched a show on the Fox network called “City under siege” well the show went to a upper class neighborhood in Georgetown where some of those who make the laws live and at a party was all kinds of drugs. The most popular spot was a serving platter piled high with Cocaine. Because they were upper class they felt they were responsibly using the cocaine. There it is, the thrill from getting away with it leads some people to indulge in behaviour they otherwise wouldn’t.

    For those in the black market, when something is banned it creates a market with profit to be had. Take the prison system for example. Unable to keep drugs out, in an insainely inspiried moment tobacco is banned? Well that just adds one more item to sell at profit. Not too long ago the National Geographic channel ran episodes on prison gangs. One leader in for life was able to buy his wife a house, send his kids through college. My burning question “How did he make that kind of money in prison and was able to get it out to bennefit his family?”

    Look at store sales, to encourage people to buy, just print on you ad limited qunatity available and watch them come in. Ban something and really watch people who otherwise wouldn’t buy, buy. I remember watching the news when the banning assault type rifles law was announced to be occuring in a few weeks. The result? Well there was a surge in people buying those weapons and in those breaking into gun stores to steal. It was announced in the news with graphs, charts, and film clips of people saying they were buying guns while they could while it was still legal. I wouldn’t be surprized if in the week before prohibition people didn’t go out and buy as much alcohol as they could while they could while the gangsters set up routes, warehouses etc to prepare for the new item to be added to the black market.Later after the law was in effect, in a news story out of Virginia I read of weapons stolen from a gun shop were recovered in a apratment known to be used for gun storage by gangs in Washington DC.

    While a lesson older than man, we as a people seem to forget nothing and to learn nothing but cling blindly to our stereotypes and or are led to to questionalble decisions by those who are doing it for our own good?

    Previous to the ban on smoking in bars and restauraunts smokers and non smokers coexisted peacefully, I would go to the smoking area where I was and enjoy. However I noticed some non smokers would go into the smoking areas and complain, imposing thier values on me. Coming home from overseas for Uncle Sam, I was at an airport in California. Well I asked and was directed to an area where I could smoke. While there I had a woman sit next to me and announce “Your smoke is bothering me, put out that cigaratte” Point 1 I was in a designated smokeing area, away from the main area. Point 2 she came to where I was and demanded I stop? I politely pointed out to her that I was in the smoking area and if it offended her to go to the non smoking area. Making a scene and talking loud it wasn’t long before a police officer showed up. Hearing the story he raised his eyebrows at this woman ordering him to make me quit smoking. His reply was “Maam this is a smoking area if the smoke bothers you, you should move”. Now to save us all from second hand smoke we have smoking bans in many cities with the result we have more people starting to smoke to be rebels. Just my opinion but I am scared to death every time I hear of a new law for my own good? or to save me from myself? Who appointed these people God? or in some cases Overloard for the atheist ones.

    How many would have started smoking IF it wasnt banned? but to get that cheap thrill of getting away with it, they smoke.

    Well I seem to be running my jaws, but to simplify I repeat my opening statement, tell them they can’t and people like lemmings and sheep rush to do what is banned and forbidden to be rebels. And for those of you who haven’t read Animal Farm do so and tell me if some of these people who want to impose their will upon us for our good don’t remind you of the pigs, Napoleon the leader and his mouthpiece Squealer?

    I wonder what Chesty would say about this lack of standing tall and behaving like sheep?

    Semper Fi!

    • #6 by The Observer on July 22, 2011 - 7:09 PM

      I agree, our God-given free will is often exercised improperly. That is the thing about freedom – to exercise it ethically it must be tempered with personal responsibility but most people either do not possess that responsibility or refuse to apply it (for whatever reason). This is the unfortunate yang to liberty’s yin in any environment where the fallibility of man is exposed. But it does not mean that freedom is not a worthwhile mortal pursuit. Without this pursuit, there is no legitimate purpose to civil society or government for that matter.

      I particularly appreciate Jefferson’s perspective as well which is one reason that I disagree with America’s approach to drug use. It does pick my pocket and with little or nothing to show for it with regard to the publicly professed objective(s). The prosecutors of the so-called War on Drugs remove a lot from the table without bringing much to it in return, in my estimation. The costs associated with the relevant activities in law enforcement, the judiciary, the penal system, and the after-the-fact costs related to monitoring and in some cases supporting the felons upon their release are staggering and yet the problem persists.

      As a just government exists solely to protect individual rights – and ingesting something in one’s own body does not violate this tenet – I simply cannot support such laws even though on a moral level I do not endorse drug use (I do not even typically take over-the-counter meds such as aspirin or ibuprofen). To make an additional point about the “nannyism” that you referred to, I happen to think that the populace is also taking way too many legal drugs, such as antibiotics, to the ultimate detriment of their own natural abilities to fight off infections later, but would never support their ban solely on this premise. It is one thing to warn about possible side effects so the consumer can make an informed decision but another thing altogether to remove that choice outright. Like you, I cringe when government presumes they know what is best for us because whether they are right or wrong, they nonetheless violate the premise and spirit of the Constitution when they do so. We have every right to live our lives as we see fit, regardless of what other people think about that lifestyle (again, so long as we do not violate another’s rights), and are responsible for that lifestyle and the choices we make.

      I also concur that there is a dramatic absence of legitimate role models for young people nowadays, a problem I think starts in the home. It is interesting to me how much social structures have changed; there was a time when the profession of arms (i.e., knights and the like) was held in high esteem and jesters and bards were lower in the social hierarchy. Today, the reverse is true. Many people erroneously think that soldiers are poor or uneducated kids with nowhere else to go and actors and musicians are treated as if they are royalty. I have to admit that Americans’ infatuation with celebrities is weird to me and largely escapes my ability to comprehend…

  4. #7 by Benjamin on July 26, 2011 - 4:53 PM

    Ah well said I first heard in Government class in High School that with rights come responsibilities but shake my head at those who demand rights but are not responsible. Then too are those who want to take away my rights “Just because its for my own good” best example are those who say the Second Amendment is out dated. Well in my opinion the second amendment defends the first. You only have freedom of speech IF you are able to defend it. Then too what seperates the free man from the serf/slave is the right to bear arms. When it comes to drugs sure there will be people who want to enjoy the right but don’t want to be responsible, look at alcohol. Freedom is frightening it means having no master to dictate to you, you must be responsible for your own actions, and no I do not want big brother/sister to decide for me but am willing to listen to advice to guide me from equals and mentors.

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