The Collateral Damage of the Drug War

Radley Balko over at Reason summarizes the collateral damage that has been incurred in our nation's drug war. These casualties include police militarization, repeated foreign policy travesties (read: the entirety of Latin America has good reasons to hate us), the incarceration of hundred of thousands for nonviolent offences, and impediments to the use of to adequate pain control in medicine. Oh, and the cherry of top of this horrid sundae is the abdication of the rule of law.

It is a pretty sad read.

But here is the kicker:

Even if the drug war were working -- even if all the horrible things the federal government says are caused by illicit drugs were accurate (and some of them admittedly are), and even if the war on drugs were proving successful in eradicating or even significantly diminishing our access to those drugs -- you'd have a difficult time arguing that the benefits would be worth the costs.

But the kicker is, of course, that it isn't working. Most of the federal government claims about the evils associated with illicit drugs are either exaggerated or misapplied effects not of the drugs, but of the government's prohibition of them.

More to the point, none of this is working, even taking drug war advocates' positions at face value. It is as easy to achieve an illegal high today as it was in 1981, as it was in 1971, as it was in 1915. The vast majority of you reading this either know where to get a bag of marijuana, or know someone who knows where to get one. Specific drugs come in and out of vogue, but the desire to alter one's consciousness, to escape life's drab monotonies, or just to call in a different mindset is as strong and pervasive as it's ever been, going back to the stone age. It's also just as easy to fulfill.

Read the whole thing.

I can think of good reasons why we would want limit the use of drugs like heroin. I have seen the destructiveness of the user's life and those around them that such drugs can wreak. If I had my way, drugs like heroin would not be available in the world. But I am not omnipotent and neither is the government.

All people must make choices about costs and benefits. The key question is: has the drug war as a means been worth the cost to meet those ends -- particularly considering its less than admirable effectiveness?

Drug war advocates might respond: so you are just going to throw in the towel and give up!? I have two responses to this. 1) I know a lost cause when I see one. You can't ban stupid, and that is precisely what drug war advocates are trying to do. 2) Drug war advocates have become overwhelmed by their own metaphor -- their own "the ends justify the means" logic -- such that they have frankly stopped considering that any other policy options exist.

Other options do exist -- including legalization, regulation and taxation. The big question is just how much collateral damage we are going to accept before we try them.

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Why is the President & the US Congress are so afraid of holding a conversation with the American people when it comes to re-legalizing cannabis? They know that cannabis represent 85% of all illicit drugs used. They know that the majority of voters want cannabis legalized, and this would remove that 85% of the war on drugs which prohibitionists & criminals alike rely on to support their jobs. The remaining 15% of drugs just won't be as profitable to sell or prosecute. Organized crime/drug cartels would be greatly diminished. Not a good thing for criminals or the prison guards union. Prohibitionists know they won't have as many excuses to violate people's rights or to continue unjustly seizing private property, either. Cannabis users are soft targets, too. Without those people to arrest, our law enforcement officers will have more time to pursue bank robbers, rapists, child molesters, home invaders, serial killers and the like. Without marijuana to fight over, street gangs won't have as much money to lure new recruits with. The sale of marijuana to minors only represents 5% of the market. With the profit motive removed & the penalties being the same as they right now, most drug dealers just won't find it worth the risk to selling marijuana to minors. Licensed merchants successfully prevent minors from buying alcohol & tobacco 90% of the time. Minors would have a harder time buying marijuana from licensed merchants, too. But, all these good reasons for ending marijuana prohibition never stopped prohibitionists from having tunnel vision in the past. So, they'll just have to be voted out & replaced with pragmatists. We need politicians who know how to create workable policies that do the least amount of harm to our nation. Alcohol prohibition was a disaster & so is marijuana prohibition. That's why we need to end it as soon as possible.

By AugustAbol (not verified) on 29 Jan 2009 #permalink

I'm not familiar with any heroin addicts except through reading, but wouldn't it make sense that if they could more easily get methadone and marijuana legally, that the heroin usage would go down?

AugustAbol, you touch on the main thing keeping marijuana and other drugs illegal - profits being made on both sides. Oh, and money-laundering and investments. The drug money doesn't just get buried in somebody's back yard.

If they legalised MJ and sold it at supermarkets, would the packets have government warning labels on them?

The jokes just write themselves ...

As Robert Higgs put it:

As a general rule for understanding public policies, I insist that there are no persistent "failed" policies. Policies that do not achieve their desired outcomes for the actual powers-that-be are quickly changed. If you want to know why the U.S. policies have been what they have been for the past sixty years, you need only comply with that invaluable rule of inquiry in politics: follow the money.

He was talking about foreign policy, but the principle is the same.

you highlight one the of the key problems in the debate; how the political climate of the last 40 years has effectively created an intellectual no go zone regards options for legalisation and regulation. prohibition is taken as a given and the only options that can be entertained lie within its overarching framework. It is of course a policy option - and was an option that was both radical and unevidenced at its inception. the evidence of its effectiveness has clearly never emerged; its time for amture and rational debate of regulatory alternative. That is after all, how we manage the use of 1000s of drugs, as well as other dangerous goods and services in society. Prohibition is an extrmist policy anomaly. Regulation is the rational norm.

Ending the war on drugs will not be difficult. Ending alcohol prohibition required two thirds majorities and state ratifications. A simple majority in each house could put repeal of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 on the president's desk, Without this authority, the federal war on drugs comes to a schreeching halt. Then we'll have a clean slate on which to establish a science-based, constitutional drugs policy. We should seek light from the Beckley Foundation, which has experts with firsthand experience. Concerned citizens should email their thoughts to their congresspeople. No one else but you can get past their zip code spam filters. Those who want to go the extra mile can send snail-mail to relevant subcommittees.

The War on Drugs has so much collateral damage that it is difficult to even start to describe it. One area mentioned is the total disregard of law engaged in by federal enforcement efforts. Forget habeas corpus. It might as well not be on the books. Forget the "Speedy trial act" it is ignored routinely in drug cases, forget a trial by a jury of your peers, demanding one will get you punished with a sentence up to several times as severe as pleading guilty regardless of your innocence. If you are convicted on even one minor count the judge can sentence you as though you were convicted on all counts even those where the jury found you not guilty. (Where the hell did that come from? When I first heard it I could not believe we allow this in America) For those caught up in the one million three hundred thousand arrest annually for drug charges, the only way out is to make a deal and plead guilty unless you are willing and able to trade the lives of your friends and family for our freedom. For Drug Enforcement it is the body count that matters. Enough body's will buy your freedom and/or reduce your sentence. Guilt or innocence has nothing to do with it.

Want an interesting experience? Go to your local Federal or Metropolitan Correction Center on visitor's day and talk to the women and children in line outside waiting to see their men. Better yet visit someone locked up and see in the visitors room the children united with their father's for half an hour or an hour and then torn apart. Know that every man in there is looking at seven years separation on average + five years to life of "supervised release". That every child will be seven years older when it's father gets released. The Mothers and Grandmothers are there too. Many will be dead before their grandson's are released.

These citizens (women and children) are treated with no respect by the staff. They often stand in the weather cold and wet for hours to get in to see an inmate and are sometimes turned away for foolish reasons even having waited outside in the weather for extended periods of time.

JOIN Law enforcement against prohibition ( and write your congressman. Prohibition must be ended.

Donald Sheldon