Drug War: Fail

Bravo for Nicholas Kristof's editorial in the Times:

Here in the United States, four decades of drug war have had three consequences:

First, we have vastly increased the proportion of our population in prisons. The United States now incarcerates people at a rate nearly five times the world average. In part, that's because the number of people in prison for drug offenses rose roughly from 41,000 in 1980 to 500,000 today. Until the war on drugs, our incarceration rate was roughly the same as that of other countries.

Second, we have empowered criminals at home and terrorists abroad. One reason many prominent economists have favored easing drug laws is that interdiction raises prices, which increases profit margins for everyone, from the Latin drug cartels to the Taliban. Former presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia this year jointly implored the United States to adopt a new approach to narcotics, based on the public health campaign against tobacco.

Third, we have squandered resources. Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard economist, found that federal, state and local governments spend $44.1 billion annually enforcing drug prohibitions. We spend seven times as much on drug interdiction, policing and imprisonment as on treatment. (Of people with drug problems in state prisons, only 14 percent get treatment.)

I've seen lives destroyed by drugs, and many neighbors in my hometown of Yamhill, Oregon, have had their lives ripped apart by crystal meth. Yet I find people like Mr. Stamper persuasive when they argue that if our aim is to reduce the influence of harmful drugs, we can do better.

The current regime not only has failed, but is absolutely absurd in its assumptions.  The argument that something like marijuana should be illegal is always "to protect the kids."  But the solution is nuts.   I will put it very personally.  It replaces a mildly bad thing (my teenager is smoking rope) with a disasterous, ruin-one's-life thing (my teenager was arrested for possession and may go to jail).  Its just crazy to say it is better to send kids to jail than have them do drugs.  Drugs I can deal with and correct in my household, or at least I can try -- jail and an arrest record I can't fix.

Drug warriors worry about "the message" we send to kids with legalization, but no one is talking about legalizing drugs for kids, any more than we do with tobacco or alcohol.  Use of those are adult decisions and we require one to be an adult to make them.

To be honest, looking at the teens I see, I can't see much difference in teen's perception of smoking tobacco vs. other drugs, despite the fact that the former is legal for adults, and so by drug warrior logic we have sent the message that it is more OK somehow.  In fact, in use statistics, it is hard to see any difference, with teens using legal-for-adults drugs like tobacco at about the same rate as they use other illegal-for-everyone drugs.


  1. Adam:

    I've never much understood the rationale one way or another - if someone wants to snort some white powder off a (legally acquired) dead hooker, good luck to 'em. If it truly interferes with other people, well, damn - seems like we have a whole branch of judiciaries for dealing with those consequences.

  2. Kelly Norton:

    The link to the NY Times is pointing to a previous post on your site and not to the NY Times editorial.

  3. Me:

    Spot on!

    Interestingly, this is the second article today that merits linking to a story about how a completely fabricated story led to the arrest and substantial impact on the life of folks caught in what we so euphemistically call the 'justice system':

    Link: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/31345639/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts/

  4. nom de guerre:

    oh, it stopped being about "drugs" a long time ago. now, it's all about
    1) maintenance and expansion of police powers and budgets and militarization
    2) ruining people's lives (largely) on the basis of their race
    3) "helping" those ruined people in exchange for their votes
    4) control of the unruly populace: any problem citizen can be 'disappeared' simply by planting a little powder on him; in his car; in his home; etc.
    aaaaaand 5) (if you chose to believe a cynical old 'miami vice' episode) helping latin america keep making the interest payments on their foreign-aid debt by maintaining huge margins on their export crops. so long as those interest payments are made, the loans on the books are still "good". the balance sheet looks pretty; the CEO keeps his job; stock options for all!

    as i understand it, no drug was illegal before 1913/1914. not a one. (well, ok, maybe absinthe.)(and possibly opium.) you could buy heroin or cocaine at the corner drugstore. how'd the country survive before drug laws came in to existence? and not only survive, but *thrive*?

  5. morganovich:

    i would add a couple of other factors:

    if drugs were legal, quality would go up. the difference between pharmaceutical grade and "street" grade is dramatic. this would improve safety and cut down on poisonings etc. and their attendant medical costs.

    but more important, legalizing drugs would make it harder, no easier, for "the children" to get them. in high school, it's dramatically easier to get drugs than alcohol. so kids chose drugs. it was like that when i was in school and i see no indication that it has changed. legalizing them all and putting a 21 year old age requirement on them would do more to keep teens off drugs than any other plausible scenario. why are there no black market beer dealers preying on kids? because the profit margin sucks. it is only there illegality that makes drug selling profitable. sell them like liquor, and that's gone.

  6. K:

    The War On Dugs won't work unless the borders are secure. It must become very hard to get loads of drugs into the country.

    Unless we have control of the immigrations, mostly from the South, we aren't going to get anywhere with the drug smuggling either.

    And I haven't even mentioned the growing ease of making drugs chemically in labs within the US.

    Today, in our largest cities we have only poor ideas how many illegal immigrants are there, who they are, and exactly how they live. So why expect us to know how to control drug dealing there?

    And drug dealing is hardly a monopoly of the illegals or urban populations. Plenty of Americans are in the industry too, off the books, and operating from urban to rural areas.

    The necessary order must be: effectively stop easy entry to the country; effectively stop domestic growers; then go after the domestic labs. That would strangle the individual dealers.

    But we aren't going to do it anyway. Law enforcement gets many billions annually for being ineffective. And it would even cost more to be effective. They won't get the money or the leadership.

    So forget the present lip service and try something else.

  7. nom de guerre:

    and, should a miracle occur and drugs are somehow decriminalized, how do we get the cops to disarm?

    you think they'll voluntarily give up their APC's, and their full-auto machine guns, and all the cool ninja toys? i don't. we'd better do something quick, though: based on (increasingly numerous) reports of our brave security forces bravely shooting puppies; and tasing grandmaws; and killing innocents in no-knock raids, i'd say the cops are already out of control. imagine how they'll be in 10 years. or 20. (see the front page of today's WSJ for a hint of things to come.)

  8. frankania:

    Have you heard about the vicious thugs that murder each other in the cartel battles? Yes, the tobacco gangs are trying to get everyone hooked. The Liquor Cartel regularly assasinates its competitors. Oh wait, I meant the illegal-drug cartels; what's the difference? The LACK of prohibition of tobacco and liquor?
    Gosh, I wonder what the violence solution is.

  9. Michael:

    nom de guerre is right about the police. National Geographic did an hour show on marijuana. They covered a smoke shop in Canada and medical research in Israel. While the Israeli research was impressive, and the Canadians were paying there bills running the smoke shop, the scary part of the show was with the DEA. An agent said "America needs to stop thinking this is a war. My job is to get up, find someone with drugs and put them in jail. This will never end."

  10. Ian Random:

    I'm waiting for the safe legal high of electrodes directly wired to the pleasure center of the brain like in RINGWORLD.

  11. Evil Red Scandi:

    The law of supply and demand clearly states that the Drug War is Epic Fail (I suppose that's grammatically correct in the current vernacular). It's easy to prove. My wife and I haven't popped out any kids yet, we're into electronic music, and so we spend quite a bit of time in the 'club scene,' and are good friends with many people there. We see more drug use than you can shake a stick at. We've lost friends to crystal meth, we've had other friends who are strictly "weekend users," and everything in between (if you're wondering: we stick to good old-fashioned booze). Anyway, if a person were to go to a nice club and get nice and "happy" on good vodka, that will set them back $25 to $75. The equivalent "high time" with Ecstasy will cost $10 - $20. Cocaine will set you back about $60. These two drugs can be had almost instantly in any nightclub you can find. So it's either significantly cheaper or about the same price to get high on something smuggled half-way around the world as it is to get drunk on perfectly legal booze. If the drug war was making any sort of dent at all this would certainly not be the case.

    But here's the thing: the people who are really into getting trashed on drugs are the ones that would eat rat poison if they thought it would give them a buzz. They're going to get intoxicated on something. Stopping the flow of drugs does little or nothing to help these people.

  12. Michael:

    I have seen some studies that indicate that most mammals self medicate. With people, it can be more than just drugs; runner's high, sex, gambling. The war against drugs could be a battle against nature.