friend, we’ve been discussing this war on drugs for quite a
while, and whether or not it is doing anything to reduce drug use.
We both agree that most drugs, particularly “hard” drugs,
have a harmful and debilitating effect on most persons who use them.
And yet, is the metaphorical war on drugs doing what it is supposed
to do? Let’s see.
First of all we must ask, has the war on drugs reduced the amount
of drugs available in our country? The answer, emphatically, is
no. More illegal drugs are now available on the street, in higher
grade and at a cheaper price, than at any time since drugs were
first banned in 1914. There is no sign that drug use among the population
is lessening. Instead, it seems that anyone who wants to use illegal
drugs will get them, whether other illegal acts must be used to
get the money to pay for them or not.
Are not the penalties for illegal drug use severe enough? Well,
our prisons are bursting at the seams with persons arrested for
possession of drugs, while there is less and less room for violent
criminals who truly are a threat to others in our community. So-called
early release of criminals of all sorts is a routine practice to
free up prison space for new offenders.
You have made the point that drug use must be outlawed because it
imposes costs on society in taking care of drug users. That’s
right, to some extent it does. But abuse of alcohol, excessive smoking,
motorcycle riding, unhealthful eating, and other forms of higher-risk
conduct also impose costs on society. How far should we go in proscribing
these risky behaviors, things that we think are dumb, but that only
marginally affect others? And, to put it in perspective, the social
costs of illegal drug use don’t even come close to those costs
incurred by cigarette smoking.
While it’s true that there is a cost to society imposed by
illegal drug use, the costs of trying to prohibit it are dramatically
more burdensome. The highly visible crimes of theft, assault, and
robbery committed by users desperate for a fix constitute one dreadful
cost. It’s the very illegality of drugs that impels users to
go to desperate lengths to somehow get the money necessary to fill
their need. We don’t see alcoholics holding up convenience
stores in order to get money for booze. In other words, it seems
to be not the use of drugs, but the attempts to prohibit drug use,
that leads to crime.
Other costs to society imposed by the war on drugs are seen in the
way in which we now accept reduced limits on our freedoms. Consider
forfeiture laws, those laws enacted to punish users and dealers
by allowing law-enforcement agencies to seize assets to further
fight the war on drugs. Using these laws, police agencies and prosecutors
can claim cash, houses, automobiles, and other assets that are in
any way used in violation of drug laws, even if that property was
used without the knowledge or consent of the owner. Such power sometimes
leads law enforcement to a great temptation to skirt the technicalities
of the law in order to seize assets, not to be used as evidence
in a court trial, but simply to make use of them. The agencies can
do this because they have only to “believe the assets were
used in a drug transaction.” No criminal charges need ever
be filed against the person whose property was seized, and the burden
of proof then is on the owner of the seized property to have it
returned. In the process, law-enforcement and judicial resources
are diverted away from truly serious and threatening crimes, so
they can be used to interfere with those who are determined to abuse,
not others, but only themselves.
It is important to remember that the laws of supply and demand apply
to illegal drugs as much as to any other commodity. Consider what
happens when a drug dealer is arrested and convicted, thus taking
him out of business. The immediate effect, if he is the kind of
major dealer that we want removed, is that the street price of his
product suddenly increases because the supply is reduced. The prospect
of increased profit then induces new dealers to immediately attempt
to fill the still-existing need of users by replacing the lost supply.
That’s the way the free market works for every commodity. How
can it be otherwise for drugs? Has the arrest of the dealer done
anything to reduce the long-term availability of drugs? Of course
not. Not only is the supply interrupted only temporarily, but a
new dealer has been induced to enter the disgusting trade.
Then there are the unconventional substances that seem to fall under
the purview of drug laws. Recent immigrants from Somalia and Ethiopia
have grown up in a culture that accepts the chewing of khat, mildly
stimulating leaves of an indigenous bush, which drug authorities
have declared illegal in the United States. Drug agents in Colorado
recently arrested an immigrant who was chewing khat in his own living
room with friends, imprisoned him, and threatened him with deportation.
To the chewer, he was simply engaging in a normal social activity,
analogous to having a beer with friends in his own home. Even more
bizarrely, newspapers report that police have asked immigrant taxi
drivers to open their mouths in order to see what they are chewing.
How much privacy should we give up in order to discourage others
from using drugs?
futility of the drug war
You have expressed your fears that drug use would increase if drugs
were legalized. Can it be claimed that anyone who wants to use drugs
now is unable to get them? In fact, drug use may decrease if drugs
were legalized because the element of rebellion and excitement in
doing something taboo would be removed. An educational program can
be expected to further keep young people from starting the addictive
habit. After all, it is now known that cigarette use is diminishing
among young people without a metaphorical “war on tobacco.”
Could it be that the war on drugs is creating more users than it
discourages? Maybe so, as the extreme profits available to those
dealing in illegal drugs provide a great incentive for them to recruit
new users who then can be supplied by the dealer. Do you see pushers
of cigarettes and alcohol hanging around the junior and senior high
schools trying to recruit new users? Of course not, because there
is no profit to a dealer in doing so. Only the illegality of drugs
drives up its price enough to cause a pusher or dealer to make the
effort to recruit new users.
And, finally, we should consider whether it is ethical or right
for some citizens, e.g., those of us opposed to the use of recreational
drugs, to use the force of government to impose our ideas of proper
deportment on others. Society rebels at the idea of using force,
Taliban-style, to enforce “approved” lifestyles on others
in most circumstances; why not when a person chooses to get high
on drugs? Granted, legalizing drugs would not solve all of the problems
associated with drug abuse, but it would solve the problems arising
from the illegality of drugs. The tremendous costs to society in
trying to prohibit drug use are counterproductive. The misguided
war on drugs criminalizes personal behavior that does not threaten
others, creates an incentive for truly criminal acts by drug users
desperate for a fix, wastes public treasure, and, most obviously,
is not achieving its desired ends.
Let’s stop this futile and eternal war on drugs and let the
government get back to its true function – protecting us from
those who would do us harm.
Muhm is a retired geologist living in Denver. This article was originally
published in the February 2005 edition of Freedom