More and more Americans are beginning to question their government’s war on drugs. The younger generation is leading the discussion.
The Texas Millennial Institute recently hosted a drug policy forum at Texas Christian University; my own campus political group at Texas A&M held a meeting on drug decriminalization; and this video criticizing the drug war recently went viral on social media.
With public concern on the rise, it’s a perfect time to re-examine the policy of drug prohibition. Here, I’ll glance at its successfulness in curtailing drug use, and then consider some of its unintended consequences.
Let me start by saying this: Re-examining drug prohibition is not the same as advocating drug use. Many drugs are dangerous. Drugs can destroy lives. Drugs are destroying many lives today, despite a century of the war on drugs.
In fact, illegal drugs are as accessible as ever. People use illegal drugs all the time. After a hundred years, we can say for sure that the drug war has absolutely failed to achieve its aim of preventing widespread use.
But, you may say, at least the drug war inhibits drug use – right? If we lifted prohibition, wouldn’t even more people start harming themselves with dangerous drugs?
Because, as we now know, drug abuse and addiction aren’t caused by exposure to drugs. They’re caused by deep-seated personal suffering, such as pain, depression, and loneliness. Pursuing drug abusers as criminals doesn’t address the underlying cause – it only makes it worse.
Countries like Portugal that have experimented with decriminalization and legalization have seen dramatic improvements in addiction rates, overdose rates, and drug-related crime.
If this seems counter-intuitive, think about it: People who want dangerous drugs already have access to them. It’s relatively safe and easy to obtain black market drugs, and yet not everyone does. Consider also that alcohol is one of the most dangerous and addictive drugs and is perfectly legal, and yet not everyone is an alcoholic. Tobacco is legal, and not everyone smokes. Morphine and heroin used to be legal in the United States; there were addicts, of course, just like there are addicts now, but there was hardly an epidemic of abuse.
People never want to ruin their lives. Most drug users use drugs in moderation, either recreationally or as medicine. Some suffering people, however, turn to drugs to drown their pain. For them, the real problem is their suffering – not the drugs that give them relief.
In short, drug warriors misunderstand the problem they are trying to solve.
But it gets worse: Drug prohibition not only lacks an upside, but it also introduces a host of downsides.
This is where it gets interesting.
Let’s start with…
Gangs and cartels. Powerful criminal organizations aren’t inevitable components of human society. Banning things spawns them. When America criminalized alcohol in the 1920s, we got Al Capone and his gangsters; now we have liquor stores. Before cannabis was first regulated in the 1930s, we had peaceable cannabis farmers; now there are violent cartels. Gangs form to meet consumer demands that the legal market cannot. And since law enforcement institutions don’t protect suppliers of illegal goods from aggressors (and indeed become aggressors themselves), drug suppliers must protect their own property. Hence, they are necessarily violent. This certainly doesn’t help with…
Crime. Drug prohibition not only generates extensive crime and violence among supply-side institutions, but also pushes the average drug consumer towards lawlessness. Criminalization inflates the cost of users’ habits, reduces their legitimate opportunities for advancement, and introduces them to criminality by definition. And if they wind up in prison, they’ll be enveloped in a culture of criminals and gangs. Which takes us to…
Mass incarceration. You’ve seen the figures before: the US government imprisons 2.2 million citizens, a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world (besides, arguably, one or two African countries and North Korea). It’s insane. America’s pursuit of drug offenders vastly overburdens its criminal justice system, siphoning resources from dealing with crimes that have immediate victims. Besides being unfair, dangerous, and life-destroying, incarceration might be the worst way to correct someone’s bad habits. It’s also very costly. Just like…
Corruption. Entire police departments have been caught laundering drug money. DEA agents are frequently discovered to be cooperating with criminal organizations. Our indispensable CIA has been exposed to be dealing in narcotics so many times throughout its hazy history as to blur any distinction between its policies and its conspiracies. Banning things has a toxic effect on the institutions we grant power over them. Speaking of toxic effects – what about…
More dangerous drugs. Criminalization drives people towards dangerous synthetic drugs like methamphetamine – or markers and glue – which are easier to produce or obtain without being caught. During alcohol prohibition, people turned to deadly industrial alcohols. Also, since prohibiting substances makes handling them vastly costlier in proportion to their volume, banned substances tend to become more potent. This potency effect explains why beer promptly gave way to hard liquor during alcohol prohibition, and also contributes to the popularity of concentrated substances like crack cocaine. Furthermore, because the illicit drug market is cloaked in secrecy, drug suppliers can get away with bulking or lacing their products with all sorts of nasty ingredients. Organizations operating under the above-ground court system have to be much more careful about harming people – unless we’re talking about the state itself, whose policy…
Prevents treatment. Sick people die because bureaucrats bar them from medicine. Cannabis, as one example, is especially valuable in curbing certain rare and dangerous conditions. Unfortunately, it’s often illegal. On a related note, average drug users, being made criminals, find it difficult to obtain help; and potential helpers have disincentives to provide it. It’s a shame, really. In fact, it’s…
Immoral. Is it morally justifiable to rob, kidnap, and cage people because they handle or consume certain substances arbitrarily banned by politicians, bureaucrats, and special interests? What if they’re consuming these substances to save their own lives? To have fun? Does it matter? I don’t think so. A plausible utilitarian argument might be made for drug prohibition if it actually did benefit society in the long run; but as this list indicates, we cannot make this assumption. Indeed, we see that many of the evils we associate with drugs actually result from criminalizing them.
This list, of course, could go on. I leave it to you to consider the drug war’s role in police militarization, rights violations, pharmaceutical cartelization, environmental degradation, racial discrimination, social disintegration, and even war.
Overall, the various long-term consequences of drug prohibition are unbounded and unknowable. Conversely, its lone justification – that it hinders use – is dubious at best. All we can say for sure is that prohibition distorts drug use. And as many are coming to realize, it may not be worth it to distort patterns of drug use – hopefully for the better – if it means warping society itself for the worse.