The Costliest War

The main reason the “War on Drugs” in the U.S. has continued long past any prospect of winning is that it cuts across ideological lines. The right sees it as a moral issue; the left as a public health and welfare issue. Both also see it as an aesthetic matter, although from different vantage points.
The history of alcoholic beverage Prohibition shows a similar ideological alignment. It was a major part of the Progressive agenda 100 years ago. The most conservative of churches backed it. That coalition was strong enough to amend the U.S. Constitution – political heavy lifting in any case.
For the past quarter century, there has been a growing recognition that the War on Drugs is lost, and it has not been worth fighting to begin with.
In 1993, American Heritage magazine published point-counterpoint articles about history’s answers to the supposed benefits and detriments to prohibition of use of mood altering drugs. The answer for those willing to consider the evidence was that prior to 1914, the year opiates were first controlled by state and federal governments, there was a small subset of persons addicted and thereby harmed. Today, in spite of Draconian penalties, and hyper-aggressive enforcement measures, that subset has grown, not diminished.
Steven B. Duke, Yale University Law Professor said in 1993 “The only benefit to America in maintaining prohibition is the psychic comfort we derive from having a permanent scapegoat. But why did we have to pick an enemy the warring against which is so self-destructive? We would be better off blaming our ills on celestial invaders flying about in saucers.”
William F. Buckley, Jr., founder and publisher of the National Review said in 1995: “We are speaking of a plague that consumes an estimated $75 billion per year of public money, exacts an estimated $70 billion a year from consumers, is responsible for nearly 50 per cent of the million Americans who are today in jail, occupies an estimated 50 per cent of the trial time of our judiciary, and takes the time of 400,000 policemen – yet a plague for which no cure is at hand, nor in prospect.”
Nearly 20 years later, the U.S. has 760 prisoners per 100,000 citizens. By comparison, Great Britain, one of the highest elsewhere, has 153. In 1980, when the war was in its infancy, the U.S. had a prison population of 153 per 100,000. More than half of federal prisoners today are in for drug convictions – many serving sentences one would consider excessive for crimes that actually harmed other persons. Four out of five drug arrests are simply for possession. My appointments from the Criminal Justice Act panel for the Northern District of Texas were mostly for defense of drug charges. (More to the point, they were exercises in calculating sentencing ranges under the federal guidelines and working to get the best plea bargain.)
Why does the drug war continue? Fareed Zakaria, writing in this week’s Time magazine, opines that, at least in part, building, staffing, and running prisons is big business and an economic boon. I am not sure I buy that, although when visiting to the Dallas County criminal courts building on any given day one can observe a massive workforce, and inspection of the court dockets reveals that more than 50 percent of the cases are controlled substance offenses of one kind or another. One cannot discount the economic impact. Decriminalizing possession and use of all controlled substances overnight would put a lot of people out of work, at least for a while. Economics cannot be the whole story. I believe a large part of continued prohibition is that controlled substances are a bogeyman (aside: help me out here, Gary B. – “bogeymen” doesn’t sound right but seems to be correct in agreement). There is a fear of the consequences of decriminalization. The specter of stoned drivers roaring down the streets and highways, opium dens, and the like is scary. Well, we have a lot of that now.
Perhaps a gradual program decriminalization would work. Marijuana is for medicinal purposes is legal in many states, and it my understanding that the federal DEA is not interested in enforcing the contrary federal laws too vigorously. That could change overnight, however. In the meantime, the futility of the War on Drugs continues. What can we do? For now, write your Congressman is the best suggestion I have.

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