Jacob Sullum

When President Bush sent the first bill for the war with Iraq to Congress, he warned that "business as usual on Capitol Hill can't go on." He said legislators should not treat the supplemental appropriation "as an opportunity to add spending that is unrelated, unwise, and unnecessary."

Yet when it comes to the disastrous boondoggle that is the war on drugs, business as usual continues. It entails spending that is not only unwise and unnecessary but demonstrably harmful.

The Drug Policy Alliance estimates that enforcing state and federal drug laws costs something like $40 billion a year. That figure does not include myriad other costs associated with prohibition -- such as property crime, black market violence, police corruption, and deaths from overdoses and tainted drugs -- that never show up in anyone's budget. Added together, they would make the tab for invading Iraq, $75 billion so far, look modest by comparison.

With escalating budget deficits as far as the eye can see, Americans should seriously consider whether we can afford a war on drugs in addition to a war with Iraq and a war on terrorism. Given the dangers we face, it's inexcusable to blithely continue the futile crusade against politically incorrect plants, powders and pills.

Consider one example of how the war on drugs squanders your tax dollars and diverts law enforcement resources from real threats to your safety. On Monday, three officers of the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center plan to plead guilty to federal charges of "knowingly opening and maintaining a place where (marijuana) was manufactured, distributed or used." Scott Imler, Jeff Yablan and Jeffrey Farrington decided against going to trial because they knew they would not be allowed to explain the purpose of their organization: providing marijuana to patients who use it as a medicine, as permitted under California law.

Without a plea, the three would have faced additional charges, carrying mandatory minimum sentences of 20 years or more. They still could face prison terms.

Questions of justice aside, can anyone seriously contend that locking up Imler and his friends is a wise use of scarce prison space? Think of it this way: Every nonviolent drug offender behind bars represents a predatory criminal on the streets.

Imler's organization was raided by the Drug Enforcement Administration in October 2001, a month and a half after al Qaeda's attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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