Why Is There a War on Drugs?

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"Some
would argue that the only solution would be the legalization of
drugs. By removing the criminality of drug sales, possession and
usage, the United States government could devote more of its law
enforcement resources on other crimes such as murder, rape, assault
etc. Furthermore, they argue that regulation of such drugs could
create a revenue enhancement for federal, state and local governments."

~
posted on the Begging
To Differ Forum

This person
must have read my mind! One can find a lot of interesting insight
and provocative opinion on Internet forums, and I will examine a
little of it here. I am, in fact, one of the "some" of
which the poster above speaks in that first sentence. And I'm certainly
not the first person to hold such an opinion. Not that long ago
on this very website Manuel
Lora
wrote:

"Possession/sale
of controlled substances; having no ID/refusing to show ID; importing/exporting
without paying taxes; buying/carrying guns without a license;
selling services and goods without permits: what do all these
things have in common? They are “victimless crimes.” There is
no crime if you hurt no one. Nor is there a crime if you hurt
yourself on purpose or by accident."

Indeed. And
none other than the righteous Lysander
Spooner
opined:

"It
is a maxim of the law that there can be no crime without a criminal
intent; that is, without the intent to invade the person or property
of another. But no one ever practices a vice with any such criminal
intent. He practices his vice for his own happiness solely, and
not from any malice toward others."

The Upside
of Legalization — Obvious

So it seems
pretty clear that logically and legally, conducting a war on a vice
is misguided, but what about the other issues? What about all the
damage illegal drugs do to our communities? What about all those
children who would fall prey to nasty drug pushers was it not for
those ever-popular "this-is-your-brain-on-drugs" commercials?
I would still argue that most, if not all, of the problems with
drugs are a direct result of the fact that they have been
criminalized by the state. If the criminality associated with "illegal"
drug use was removed, the positive effects would be:

  • Violence
    concomitant to the drug trade goes away.
  • Incarceration
    of non-violent offenders is severely reduced.
  • Overdoses
    from poor quality drugs are infrequent.
  • People who
    need help to overcome addiction obtain it.
  • Tax revenue
    from the sale of drugs is funneled to the government. (Yes, that's
    a statist benefit, but hey, I'm just sayin'!)

From what I’ve
read and heard from various “experts”, most, if not all, of the
violence from the drug trade stems from people trying to facilitate
the business of drugs. In fact according to US
Census Data and FBI Uniform Crime Reports
:

"…each
of the most violent episodes in this century coincides with the
prohibition on alcohol and the escalation of the modern-day war
on drugs. In 1933 the homicide rate peaked at 9.7 per 100,000
people, which was the year that alcohol prohibition was finally
repealed. In 1980, the homicide rate peaked again at 10 per 100,000."

If drugs like
coke and crack were legal, this facilitation crime stops almost
instantly. The obvious example of prohibition supports this view.
Even the most ardent supporter of the state's right to incarcerate
anyone it pleases realizes that prohibition is what made losers
like Al Capone household names. Without prohibition, these thugs
would likely not have even been footnotes in history.

In a true example
of the irony of our "war on drugs" many, if not most,
of the folks doing time for drugs are not those most responsible
for the drug trade. In my simplistic view, the folks most responsible
for the drug trade have to own, or have ready access to, either
a boat or a plane. In sharp contrast, the folks swelling our prisons
are similar to the guys with whom I grew up. They sold drugs, lived
in a double-wide trailer, and drove an Escalade, but they were just
distributors. They got pinched and convicted, but they were,
at best, workers not thinkers. Yet they get 25-to-life and the drug
flow proceeds unabated anyway! That doesn’t make sense if you’re
really trying to fight and win a war.

In terms of
fighting the addiction, I know a few people who have “kicked the
habit” and counseling was extremely important. Imagine if junkies
could get help like alcoholics routinely get. Most assuredly that
type of intervention does not happen now as much as it could if
the criminality was removed. We treat alcoholism like a disease
for good reasons. As an aside, I wonder if stuff like medical marijuana
gets the use it could without the criminal overtones.

To the issue
of tax revenue, I’m pretty certain that the government already receives
more revenue than I would like to see them get, but I still have
no problem with them receiving the tax revenue from formerly illegal
drugs. Frankly, I don’t think legalization has to mean government
distribution or even regulation. (The conspiracy theorist in me
tends to believe that legalization would result in less profit
for the government, but I would never say that here!) Still, a removal
of the criminality could result in an obvious revenue stream.

Additionally,
drug users currently pay extremely over-inflated prices, reflecting
the risks involved in drug production and the limits to competition.
This means that the drug war actually makes drug users poorer. The
State, via its drug war, implements a pro-poverty policy:
it deliberately tries to make drug use extremely expensive for the
users by destroying free competition. Ergo, the drug war fails to
mitigate the usage while simultaneously keeping the costs artificially
high. The current war on drugs creates the worst of both
worlds!

Of course the
conventional wisdom can provide any number of supposedly meaningful
arguments against wholesale legalization of illegal drugs, such
as:

"By
legalizing drugs, the government grants an implicit consent that
drug consumption is morally acceptable."

To this I would
simply say, hopefully without being too facetious, that anyone who
thinks drug consumption is not morally acceptable in the U.S. hasn’t
watched TV in the last 15 minutes! Two words: "Viagra anyone?"
People in the U.S. consume something like twice the OTC pharmaceuticals
of the next nearest country. According to "Report
9 of the Council On Medical Service (I-99)
" we find:

"As
a point of reference to U.S. expenditures, IMS Health data show
that the total worldwide market for pharmaceuticals is $302 billion.
Novartis, Merck, and Glaxo Wellcome are the top three pharmaceutical
companies in terms of global sales. Within the total audited world
market, the leading 20 pharmaceutical companies account for 57.3%
of all sales. The leading 10 companies account for 36% of total
sales. The top 10 worldwide markets represent 84% of all global
audited pharmaceutical sales. The US, which is the largest market
(40% of the worldwide market), grew 11% to $99.5 billion in 1998."

Yes, you read
that correctly. The U.S. market in 1998 accounted for 40% of the
worldwide market, which was $302 billion. (Certainly the use of
pharmaceuticals in the U.S. has not gone down since then.) Americans
love drugs! There just happens to be a war against some of
the people who use some of the drugs.

And just as
important, it turns out that illegal drugs are, even given the crime,
violence, and other negative factors, generally safer than
many activities already common, as another poster mentioned when
he said:

"Of
course, per the AMA’s data, all of these drugs combined are
less deadly than a number of different common health hazards,
including prescription drugs and risky sexual behaviors."

Emphasis mine.
Exactly. Of course he was talking about cigarettes and alcohol.
These items kill many more people than illegal drugs. Need
proof? Examine this chart.
We tend to vilify certain drugs while simultaneously celebrating
the good clean fun of enjoying others, along with “those twins”
(from the Coors Lite commercials) and whatnot. I just don’t see
it as anything but puritanical hypocrisy. Of course, some folks
would tend to disagree. Such a disagreement was raised by another
poster when she said:

"Sure,
go ahead and legalize drugs. But can we agree that if you develop
serious health issues (i.e. cocaine induced heart attack or stroke,
cirrhosis) we don’t have to pay for your care? Easily 4/10
people we admitted [to the emergency room] each night on call
were there because of cocaine/ETOH related issues in repeat
offenders."

Emphasis mine.
Well, no, we can’t.

Is there a
precedent currently in place for denial of care based upon stupidity?
Apparently the people admitted to the ER are abusing a legal drug
in combination with an illegal one. I would also guess that they
inhabit a socio-economic stratum that tends to use the ER as the
doctor’s office, although I could be wrong about that. Unless we
are suggesting that legalization would positively interact with
abuse and socio-economic status, I don’t see the point. Unless we're
suggesting that the tendency of a person to use the ER as a doctor’s
office would positively interact with legalization, I don’t see
the point.

The Downside
of Legalization — Dubious

But, certainly
there might be bad consequences after wholesale legalization
of heretofore-illegal drugs. So let us look at the possible negatives.
If the criminality associated with "illegal" drug use
was removed, the negative effects could be:

  • More people
    try hard drugs.
  • Health care
    costs associated with treating drug abuse skyrockets.
  • The moral
    fiber of society is further weakened.

In the case
of legality leading to more use, we have two readily available examples
to examine – tobacco and alcohol. In the case of cigarettes, during
their early history it was not clear nor publicized that they were
bad. In fact, the industry leaders actually said in advertisements,
that cigarettes were good for you! As ludicrous as that sounds now,
that was the pervasive message in advertising and in almost all
forms of public discourse. I can’t imagine the CEO’s of the six
leading cocaine manufacturers ever testifying before Congress in
that way!

For alcohol,
the message is much different at this point. Our entire society
is built around the responsible use of alcohol to modify one’s mood.
Alcohol consumption is rampant, and the use of such drugs is accepted
and far from pejorative to one’s character. Illegal drug use is
similar to alcohol in pervasiveness, yet carries a negative social
stigma. I find this curious.

The amount
of cocaine (and derivative products, like crack) consumed in America
is astronomical. In fact, if the use of coke was limited only to
the folks we tend to lament, (and apparently wish to “teach a lesson”
by denying care) I submit that no one would give a crap. I believe
that recreational drug use by folks in similar socio-economic status
to people like those who frequent Internet forums fully supports
the drug trade in the U.S. Very few, if any, of these people would
ever be caught using the ER as a doctor's office. Fewer still would
likely begin to do so after legalization. Ergo, the problem that
needs addressing in the ER example has little, if anything, to do
with legalization of drugs. I would therefore argue that the costs
reflected our ER example will continue to exist regardless of legality.

Given the prevalence
of drug use already occurring, the moral fiber of our society would
be unlikely to even feel a tug after legalization. Frankly, there
already exists ample evidence from other countries showing less
use of drugs that are illegal in the U.S. but legal in those countries!
Consider the example of The
Netherlands
, where marijuana use is legal, yet the prevalence
is lower. No, legality does not drive increased usage by itself.

On the other
hand, I have known several couples who have been negatively impacted
by the abuse of coke. In each case, they were professionals. In
each case, they were otherwise solid citizens. In at least a couple
of cases, one or both were college graduates. Yet, the abuse of
coke tore them apart.

One might think
that those examples should lead me to be a strong proponent of the
drug war, but it had exactly the opposite effect. In my mind, the
illegality or legality of the substances had no effect on these
folks’ decisions. It is one of my firmest beliefs that this is generally
the case. And the libertarian in me is reminded of one immutable
truth: it was their decision to make. People’s behavior is
relatively unaffected by laws designed to provide moral direction.
What is affected is the socio-economic stratum they may inhabit
after they have made a mistake. If we really want to address those
problems, our approach must be different.

Conclusion

So why is there
a war on drugs? In all honesty, part of me just has no idea. (Yes,
even a libertarian can find comfort in denial!) The other part of
me agrees wholeheartedly with "Jake", one of my colleagues
over on the Freedomain
Radio Forum
, when he says:

"There
is a war on drugs because the people who control the State do
not want to be stuck answering the phone, they want an excuse
to break down your door. In other words, they don’t want to be
limited to providing dispute resolution services, they want an
instrument of social control that they can extend. Real dispute
resolution has to serve the requirements of the customer (a member
of the public calls up and says that someone has stolen his car,
requiring you to try and find it). The state in this role is at
the beck and call of the public. If the public just goes about
its own business, the state has nothing to do. However, victimless
crimes offer a whole new opportunity for actively interfering
in peoples lives: now the state is truly following its own agenda
and can try to arrest people without the pesky problem of needing
a complainant."

Indeed. Clearly
the U.S. market is providing substantial support for the third world's
production of cocaine, heroin, and whatever else can be manufactured
in a cave in the Middle East. Just as clearly, the consumption of
prescription drugs is an accepted and — judging by the number of
TV spots — suggested way of life. If Puritan morals were
at the root of this ostensible "war", then one might expect
there to be a general disdain for drug use, as opposed to a supposed
hate for illegal drugs simultaneous with an open embrace of legal
ones.

Let me not
end this essay without re-examining the justifications for this
"war" using the argument from morality. As Spooner
and Lora eloquently convey in the pieces I linked at the beginning
of this essay, the ostensible offender in a drug-related crime infringes
upon no one but himself. How it is moral for the State — simply
a group of people — to determine which of these self-inflicted activities
is a crime and which is not? And how do they know? Upon what authority,
other than force, can they justify such a decision? Surely, if my
ingestion of a "controlled substance" justifies me being
sent to prison, there are few other limits left. What's next, prison
time for over-eating? How about fines for letting your children
watch too much TV? Where exactly does it stop? I wonder. Would it
not be better to pursue drug peace just this once?

And
just off the top of my head, I also wonder if those "drug-free
zones" near schools include Prozac, Lithium, Viagra, and for
the love of all that's holy, Ritalin?

October
5, 2006

Wilt
Alston [send him
mail
] lives in Rochester, NY, with his wife and three
children. When he's not training for a marathon or furthering his
part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a principal
research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily
on the safety of subway and freight train control systems.

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