Jacob Sullum

It speaks volumes about the twisted priorities dictated by the war on drugs that the federal government, having failed so spectacularly in its central function of protecting Americans from aggression, could so quickly turn its attention to punishing Americans for trying to alleviate the suffering of sick people.

Measured by arrests (about 700,000 a year), marijuana is the main target of the war on drugs, which is why federal officials have shown no mercy toward patients who use it to relieve pain, nausea or muscle spasms. Admitting that marijuana could be good for anything would be an embarrassing retreat from the aptly named policy of "zero tolerance."

In addition to hurting innocent people, this policy costs a lot of money, going well beyond the resources allocated to police, prosecutors and prisons. The government estimates, for instance, that Americans spend between $50 billion and $100 billion a year on illegal drugs. Almost all of that spending is a cost of prohibition, since it represents the "risk premium" that criminals earn by supplying contraband.

This gift from the government enriches and empowers murderous thugs, subsidizes terrorism and contributes to property crime by heavy users trying to support their habits. Since stolen goods typically are sold at a steep discount, their value far exceeds the already inflated cost of drugs.

A less quantifiable cost of prohibition is the erosion of civil liberties. In recent decades, the war on drugs has been the biggest factor undermining the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against "unreasonable searches and seizures." It also has threatened property rights through asset forfeiture and religious freedom through prohibition of drug rituals.

The Office of Management and Budget has suggested that the civil liberties implications of anti-terrorism measures should routinely be considered along with their dollar cost. No such caution applies to anti-drug measures, which do not even have the justification of preventing violence.

Former DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson has shown us the direction the government ought to be taking. He recently left the anti-drug agency for a job in the Department of Homeland Security.

Jacob Sullum

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