Why Is There a War on Drugs?


"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.


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