Time to Rethink the War on Drugs
Eighty-four percent of Americans say that possible cocaine
use in his 20s should not disqualify Texas governor George W. Bush from
being president. But if a cocaine user can go on to be president, why
should we put young people in jail for using cocaine? Maybe the voters'
indifference to Bush's possible past indicates that people are ready for a
more rational discussion of drug policy.
The decisions of New Mexico's Republican governor, Gary Johnson, and
Minnesota's Reform Party governor, Jesse Ventura, to discuss drug
legalization are also signs of change.
It's time for some common sense about the war on drugs. More than $30
billion is being spent annually on the drug war. One and a half million
people are being arrested every year. But 78 million people say they have
tried drugs, and 80 percent of teenagers say drugs are easy to obtain.
Things are obviously going in the wrong direction.
In fact, the war on drugs has been a tragic failure. Just consider all the
ways: First, drug prohibition creates high levels of crime - just as
alcohol prohibition did in the 1920s. Addicts are forced to commit crimes
to pay for a habit that would be easily affordable if it were legal.
Police sources have estimated that as much as half the property crime in
some major cities is committed by drug users. When black-market contracts
are breached, the result is often some form of violent sanction, which
usually leads to retaliation and then to open warfare in the streets.
Our capital city, Washington, D.C., has become known as the "murder
capital" even though it is the most heavily policed city in the
United States. Make no mistake about it, our outrageously high murder
rates have nothing to do with the mind-altering effects of a marijuana
cigarette or a crack pipe. They are the result of the drug trade, not the
Second, drug prohibition channels more than $40 billion a year into the
criminal underworld. Alcohol prohibition drove reputable companies into
other industries or out of business altogether, which paved the way for
mobsters to make millions through the black market. If drugs were legal,
organized crime would stand to lose billions of dollars, and drugs would
be sold by legitimate businesses in an open marketplace.
Third, drug prohibition is a classic example of throwing money at problem.
The federal government spends some $16 billion to enforce the drug laws
every year - all to no avail. When drug use goes up, taxpayers are told
the government needs more money so that it can redouble its efforts
against a rising drug scourge. When drug use goes down, taxpayers are told
that it would be a big mistake to cut spending just when progress is being
made. Good news or bad, spending levels must be maintained or increased.
Fourth, the drug laws are responsible for widespread social upheaval. The
drug laws have turned our cities into battlefields and upended the normal
social order. Drug prohibition has created a criminal subculture in the
inner cities. The immense profits involved in a black-market business make
drug dealing the most lucrative endeavor for many people, especially those
who care least about getting on the wrong side of the law.
Drug dealers become the most visibly successful people in inner-city
communities, the ones with money, and clothes, and cars. Social order is
turned upside down when the most successful people in a community are
criminals. The drug war makes peace and prosperity virtually impossible in
Fifth, the drug laws break up families. Too many parents have been
separated from their children because they were convicted of marijuana
possession, small-scale sale of drugs, or some other nonviolent offense.
Will Foster used marijuana to control the pain and swelling associated
with his crippling rheumatoid arthritis. He was arrested, convicted of
marijuana cultivation, and sentenced to 93 years in prison, later reduced
to 20 years. Are his three children better off with a father who uses
marijuana medicinally, or a father in jail for 20 years?
And going to jail for drug offenses isn't just for men anymore. In 1996,
188,880 women were arrested for violating drug laws. Most of them did not
go to jail, of course, but more than two-thirds of the 146,000 women
behind bars have children. One of them is Brenda Pearson, a heroin addict
who managed to maintain a job at a securities firm in New York. She
supplied heroin to an addict friend, and a Michigan prosecutor had her
extradited, prosecuted, and sentenced to 50 to 200 years. We can only hope
that her two children will remember her when she gets out.
Sixth, drug prohibition leads to civil liberties abuses. The demand to win
this unwinnable war has led to wiretapping, entrapment, property seizures,
and other abuses of Americans' traditional liberties. The saddest cases
result in the deaths of innocent people: people like Donald Scott, whose
home was raided at dawn on the pretext that he was cultivating marijuana,
and who was shot and killed when he rushed into the living room carrying a
gun; or people like the Rev. Accelyne Williams, a 75-year-old minister who
died of a heart attack when police burst into his Boston apartment looking
for drugs - the wrong apartment, as it turned out; or people like Esequiel
Hernandez, who was out tending his family's goats near the Rio Grande just
six days after his 18th birthday when he was shot by a Marine patrol
looking for drug smugglers. As we deliberate the costs and benefits of
drug policy, we should keep those people in mind.
Students of American history will someday ponder the question of how
today's elected officials could readily admit to the mistaken policy of
alcohol prohibition in the 1920s but continue the policy of drug
prohibition. Indeed, the only historical lesson that recent presidents and
Congresses seem to have drawn from the period of alcohol prohibition is
that government should not try to outlaw the sale of alcohol. One of the
broader lessons that they should have learned is this: prohibition laws
should be judged according to their real-world effects, not their promised
It's time to let go of old ideas and recognize that the war on drugs has
failed. We should try a new policy: Let adults make their own decisions
by David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato
Institute, is the author of Libertarianism: A Primer and the editor
of several books, including The Libertarian Reader and The
Crisis in Drug Prohibition.