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.

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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