Rethinking the drug war

Posted: Mar 29, 2006 12:04 AM

Getting high can be bad. Putting people in prison for it is worse. And doing the latter doesn't stop the former.

I was once among the majority who believe that drug use must be illegal. But then I noticed that when vice laws conflict with the law of supply and demand, the conflict is ugly, and the law of supply and demand generally wins.

The drug war costs taxpayers about $40 billion. "Up to three quarters of our budget can somehow be traced back to fighting this war on drugs," said Jerry Oliver, then chief of police in Detroit, told me. Yet the drugs are as available as ever.

Oliver was once a big believer in the war. Not anymore. "It's insanity to keep doing the same thing over and over again," he says. "If we did not have this drug war going on, we could spend more time going after robbers and rapists and burglars and murderers. That's what we really should be geared up to do. Clearly we're losing the war on drugs in this country."

No, we're "winning," according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, which might get less money if people thought it was losing. Prosecutors hold news conferences announcing the "biggest seizure ever." But what they confiscate makes little difference. We can't even keep drugs out of prisons -- do we really think we can keep them out of all of America?

Even as the drug war fails to reduce the drug supply, many argue that there are still moral reasons to fight the war. "When we fight against drugs, we fight for the souls of our fellow Americans," said President Bush. But the war destroys American souls, too. America locks up a higher percentage of her people than almost any other country. Nearly 4,000 people are arrested every day for mere possession of drugs. That's more people than are arrested for aggravated assault, burglary, vandalism, forcible rape and murder combined.

Authorities say that warns people not to mess with drugs, and that's a critical message to send to America's children. "Protecting the children" has justified many intrusive expansions of government power. Who wants to argue against protecting children?

I have teenage kids. My first instinct is to be glad cocaine and heroin are illegal. It means my kids can't trot down to the local drugstore to buy something that gets them high. Maybe that would deter them.

Or maybe not. The law certainly doesn't prevent them from getting the drugs. Kids say illegal drugs are no harder to get than alcohol.

Perhaps a certain percentage of Americans will use or abuse drugs -- no matter what the law says.

I cannot know. What I do know now, however, are some of the unintended consequences of drug prohibition:

1. More crime. Rarely do people get high and then run out to commit crimes. Most "drug crime" happens because the product is illegal. Since drug sellers can't rely on the police to protect their property, they form gangs and arm themselves. Drug buyers steal to pay the high black market prices. The government says alcohol is as addictive as heroin, but no one is knocking over 7-Elevens to get Budweiser.

2. More terrorism. The profits of the drug trade fund terrorists from Afghanistan to Colombia. Our herbicide-spraying planes teach South American farmers to hate America.

3. Richer criminal gangs. Alcohol prohibition created Al Capone. The gangs drug prohibition is creating are even richer, probably rich enough to buy nuclear weapons. Osama bin Laden was funded partly by drug money.

Government's declaring drugs illegal doesn't mean people can't get them. It just creates a black market, where even nastier things happen. That's why I have come to think that although drug addiction is bad, the drug war is worse.