May 5th, 2010

The Failed War on Drugs

photo credit: devlantd

The federal government loves its hobby programs, especially anything and everything related to war. As Randolph Bourne said, “War is the health of the state.” Expansion and consolidation of power is facilitated by war, where a citizenry paralyzed with fear (usually propagated by the would-be federal saviors) clamors for protection from the only apparatus they consider able to deter the threat.

In the past century alone, we have had (at a minimum) a war on cancer, crime, poverty, drugs, and terror. Packaged in this militaristic manner, the federal appropriators find it easier to fund the purchase of the relevant armaments and defenses, and the bureaucratic busybodies encounter less resistance when pushing the front lines of the battle further in the direction of American citizens.

While each of these wars is an absurd waste of money, justification of expansive federal powers, and an assault on individual liberty, the war of drugs stands out as being one of the more notable wars in which we are forcibly engaged. The history of this war is like any of the other wars, featuring a supposed do-gooder President seeking to rid the country of some perceived evil. While the government had fought against “illicit” drug production and distribution previously, this war was first officially named and declared by Richard Nixon in 1973 with the creation of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Thus began the “all-out global war on the drug menace,” which in reality has been a continual skirmish leading back to 1914.

This war has cost the taxpayers some $2.5 trillion, resulting in hundreds of thousands of arrests for non-violent “crimes”, filling our jails and increasing taxpayer dependency. As of 2004, drug crimes accounted for 21% of state prisoners and 55% of all federal prisoners. Of note:

What’s amazing is that most of this imprisoning trend is recent, dating really from the 1980s, and most of the change is due to drug laws. From 1925 to 1975, the rate of imprisonment was stable at 110, lower than the international average, which is what you might expect in a country that purports to value freedom. But then it suddenly shot up in the 1980s. There were 30,000 people in jail for drugs in 1980, while today there are half a million.

The results are no less shocking than they are absurd. Consider just a few:

  • In 2008, there were 763 wiretaps performed under the authority of the PATRIOT Act. Only three were related to terrorism—allegedly the point of the entire piece of legislation. 65% were used in drug cases.
  • The government itself has been a distributor of illegal drugs, such as in the Iran Contra Affair. Done also in the supposed name of science, the federal government has for decades supplied taxpayer-funded researchers with cocaine, morphine, and other hard drugs to be used in testing on lab rats human addicts.
  • A 10-year-old girl from New York was suspended from school for bringing peppermint oil—an “unregulated over-the-counter drug”, according to the school district—and distributing it to her friends.
  • Government-approved drugs have killed far, far more people than marijuana—a drug that has become a foundational object of the war on drugs.
  • While around 10,000 people die each year from the effects of illegal drugs, a Journal of the American Medical Association article notes that around 106,000 hospitalized patients die each year from properly-prescribed and administered drugs. Additionally, over two million people suffer serious side effects.
  • Legalization of marijuana in the USA would lead to a $7.7 billion drop in law enforcement costs and generate $6.2 billion in tax revenue.
  • In addition to targeting drug cartels and alley-way distributors, licensed doctors are criminally charged for prescribing certain drugs to their patients.
  • Drug-related violence in the border areas between the USA and Mexico exceeded 7,000 people in 2009 (1,000 of them dying in January and February). Over the past three years, the death toll has reached over 16,000.
  • Early this year, a militarized SWAT team stormed into a Missouri home, fired seven rounds at the family’s two pet dogs as their seven-year-old son looked on, and arrested the father for possession of a “small amount” of marijuana. After this reckless invasion in pursuit of such a small drug stash, the family was charged with “child endangerment”—as if the flying bullets from the armed-to-the-teeth police officers posed no danger.

After well over 40 years of this war, the list of such stories is as endless as the list of individuals incarcerated for possessing a drug deemed illegal by the government. These government assaults on otherwise-peaceful individuals have usually been either tolerated or praised by Christian citizens who see these substances as immoral and therefore approve of punishment for whoever is involved in selling, distributing, purchasing, or consuming them.

Where is the line drawn, and why? Were the government to outlaw high fructose corn syrup, would people tolerate a battle-hardened squadron of government-sanctioned goons busting down their door and hauling them off to prison for possessing a Diet Coke? Should we likewise target people with chronic hay fever for desiring to purchase an ample supply of antihistamines? Were the lobbyists of alcohol and tobacco companies somehow neutralized in their capacity to influence legislation, would people support throwing the full weight of the law against smokers and drinkers, too?

First and foremost, any regulation of drug possession and consumption is constitutionally left to each state to handle. The federal intervention into such private actions is an alarming instance of a government that is too big, too intrusive, and too domineering. If a state did decide to engage in such a “war” against its citizens on its own, it would be constrained by several factors from which the federal government is exempt, such as having to directly tax their citizens to fund the war and being far more responsive to the will of the citizens due to state legislators representing a much smaller constituency.

The fundamental question, even at a state level, is: is there a proper goal of drug regulation, and how can that goal be effectively realized? Sadly, the intent of the war on drugs is, put simply, to save Americans from themselves. On this warfront and others, the nanny state has gained a strong footing upon which to erect an expensive, expansive, and exhaustive government apparatus which, with thousands of pages of regulatory minutia, has taken as its primary victim the liberty of each once-sovereign individual.

Government is not needed in this area. Most people refrain from doing hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine not because they are illegal, but because they are dangerous. As with other subjects, education is key in helping people understand the consequences of their actions. Unfortunately, the involvement of the nanny state has led many parents to delegate their own responsibilities to entities like the Drug Enforcement Agency for education (through Public Service Announcements), regulation, and enforcement. The burden of these activities must be returned to individuals themselves, so that they can enjoy their agency and suffer the consequences for whatever action they take.

Drastic and immediate steps need to be taken in order to diminish the police state, ease the burden on our prison system, and restore individual liberty; two stand out as paramount in both importance and urgency. First, controlled substances—especially marijuana—should be decriminalized at the federal level. Second, the FDA and the DEA should be dismantled. The execution of these two steps would do far more to end the drug problem than any piece of legislation, empowered bureaucrat, or multi-billion dollar program could ever dream.

The decades-long experiment of conducting government-sponsored warfare against drug distribution and consumption has failed, and failed miserably. It is time for the government to wave the white flag of surrender and meet the demands of its supposed enemy; individuals must be left free to make their own choices regarding what they would like to ingest.

22 Responses to “The Failed War on Drugs”

  1. Alan
    May 6, 2010 at 5:50 am #

    Good article!!
    You mentioned
    Were the government to outlaw high fructose corn syrup, would people tolerate … hauling them off to prison for possessing a Diet Coke?
    Actually Diet Coke does not contain high fructose corn syrup. It contains Aspartame, which is suspected to be a carcinogen approved by the FDA while Donald Rumsfeld was CEO at G. D. Searle & Company.

  2. Alan
    May 6, 2010 at 5:58 am #

    Sorry…try this link instead…

  3. John C.
    May 6, 2010 at 7:30 am #

    I’m told that prescription drug abuse is much more prevalent (in Utah) than other forms of drug addiction. Do you think that this might have something to do with the legal status of those drugs? Some people might assume that if a drug is legal it is relatively safe.

  4. Dave P.
    May 6, 2010 at 8:32 am #

    High Fructose Corn Syrup is in non-diet sodas, so the analogy still works. And remember this is also the same government that wants to declare CO2, a natural airborne gas that is a NECESSITY for life of every species on the planet, a dangerous “pollutant.” In short, they want to tax and/or arrest us for breathing.

    May 6, 2010 at 11:33 am #

    It’s interesting to note that the drug war started with taxation of drugs. It’s remiscent of the government taking over the broadband market so they eventually can control the content on the web.

  6. AL
    May 6, 2010 at 1:16 pm #

    Except for salt. We need to make that illegal.

  7. oldmama
    May 6, 2010 at 5:45 pm #

    good article–

    not an easy one to write, I daresay, for LDS audiences (even if the writer can be confident in his/her principles)–

    because *we* LDS are so good at parroting the “don’t” of the Word of Wisdom, and LDS leaders urged Utahns and other LDS to vote for prohibition (which caused a lot of chaos in other parts of the country)–

    which was the 30s version of the War on Drugs–

    sort of.

    *We* tend to think of laws against something as being ‘good’, because they might encourage a higher level of obedience, when, in fact, the laws against ‘street’ drugs . . . or non FDA-approved drugs only encourage a very high-level of elite mobster involvement–and don’t promote clean living or morality.

    For LDS it’s always hard, because we throw out the “stand for truth and righteousness” idea, while not realizing how many hidden and evil factors are involved.

    So, well done, I say.

  8. Clumpy
    May 6, 2010 at 8:56 pm #

    Connor, you are probably not a fan of comedian David Cross, but he definitely has a one-liner that applies to this situation:

    “So we call it the war on terror. You can’t fight a war on terror – that’s like trying to fight a war on jealousy!”

  9. a concerned mommy
    May 7, 2010 at 9:38 am #

    It’s certainly not an easy subject to address to an LDS audience, but you hit it on the nose! Great post!!

  10. Lynette
    May 8, 2010 at 6:34 pm #

    If the federal government decriminalized drugs then where would the poor CIA get their money! Check out Freeway Ricky Ross and see why our government loves a war on drugs. Our soldiers right now are guarding opium fields in Afghanistan we are the drug lords.

  11. Josh Williams
    May 11, 2010 at 10:33 pm #

    Connor, I think you’re spot on in this instance. People have the fantastic expectation that the cure is to oblige the “nanny state” to protect us from ourselves. After all, addiction only happens to “other people”………

    It’s interesting to me how as a society, our denial and delusions of control mirror the denial and control delusions of addicts themselves. It is saddening to me that as we have chosen to criminalize and marginalize addicts, rather than treat them with compassion and empathy and try to inform our own perceptions and expectations. I attribute this to emotional laziness, but moreso to a lack of feedback on our perceptions.

    Most americans do not experience the tragic results of our wrong expectations about the drug problem. Or, at least, we do not experience the results of our perceptions in ways that are salient. Perhaps we should all move to Juarez or Tijuana.

    How naive of us, as a nation, to think we can simply close Pandora’s Box now that it’s open. We as a society can pay for the destructive effects of addiction in one way, or we can pay in another. Either way we MUST learn to deal with it, our denial makes us victims.

    It seems to me that the only thing worse than doing nothing at all, is what the government is CURRENTLY doing! Cutting into the supply HELPS criminals, as it only enhances the profitability of drugs. So in a sense, every $1.00 we spend on enforcement puts, like $1.50 into the pocket of criminals. The thing about most drugs is they’re incredibly cheap to make. Cocaine and opiates are agricultural products- their real market price should be something like vanilla extract, or cocoa butter. Methamphetamine can be made in a hotel room. The street price of drugs is entirely the result of government “enforcement.” Without which the price would collapse and many criminals would be out of a job.

  12. David
    May 12, 2010 at 1:26 pm #

    I have long been skeptical of efforts to decriminalize drug posession despite how obviously ineffective the war on drugs has been but I can see huge merit to the idea of decrminalization that is lited to the federal level allowing states and/or communities to set and enforce their accepted standards of use etc.

    As was suggested in an earlier comment, the fact that some drugs are legal has taught some people to abandon their responsibility to bepersonally careful and judicious.

  13. Connor
    May 15, 2010 at 9:21 pm #

    Hey look at that, even the Associated Press agrees with me:

    After 40 years, the United States’ war on drugs has cost $1 trillion and hundreds of thousands of lives, and for what? Drug use is rampant and violence even more brutal and widespread.

    Even U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske concedes the strategy hasn’t worked.

  14. Carolynn ni Lochlainn
    May 15, 2010 at 10:02 pm #

    It’s nice to meet a fellow! As a revocering alcoholic and new Mormon, my opinions on drugs and alcohol are born of experience. I didn’t drink any less underage than I did later; in fact, beating the law was a sport. As you pointed out, Prohibition caused deaths due to unregulated alcohol production (watch the original Jazz Singer). I was never much for drugs, but many friends were. I believe that legislating morality takes Agency away. It also encourages abuse, disease and murder among prostitutes and kids kkilling for sneakers on playgrounds for drug money. It also disables poor farmers from growing poppies and marijuana and leaves them prey to cartel violence. Illegal drug sales line the pockets of fascist leaders and filthy-rich cartels and organized crime the world over. “Vices” will continue; they must be legalized and regulated to disempower a giant international criminal element. Satan wanted us to disavow agency in favor of sameness and following his will. Why not dump judgment altogether and work to assure individual safety? It would also increase understanding and treatment of addictive disorders, a good industrry in and of itself.

  15. Connor
    July 1, 2010 at 1:42 pm #

    Here’s an excellent video which shows some of the data about the “war on drugs”:

  16. Neil
    July 3, 2010 at 9:49 pm #

    Just another reason to build up a police state and throw people into private prisons for the money. Its easy to also plant drugs on citizens. Become a enemy of the state and some how white powder ends up in your trunk. Its all to easy.

  17. Kelli
    July 16, 2010 at 6:13 pm #

    Really all these wars that the government declares are really just ways to make money off people and further the police state. And how can they ban drugs when pharmaceuticals are also called drugs?

  18. Joshua Steimle
    September 15, 2010 at 10:55 pm #

    Not to argue, just seeking more information on what is a relatively new topic to me. A few questions:

    1. If I can assume that we agree that the “drug problem” is usage, how would getting rid of the DEA and FDA lead to less use of what are today considered illicit drugs?

    Or as a follow up, how do you respond to people whose first response to the statement “we should legalize drugs” is “But then tons more people will do drugs! People will assume it’s ok because it’s legal.”

    2. Legalizing marijuana is one thing, but legalizing harder drugs like heroin or crack seems like quite another. Would you advocate identical regulations for all drugs, or differing regulations?

    3. People talk about regulating and taxing drugs. What kind of regulation, specifically? Should we allow cigarette companies to start manufacturing joints and selling them at convenience stores and gas stations and advertising them everywhere cigs are advertised? Or should we just say that people can grow their own pot for their personal use that that of their friends and neighbors? Should we allow the commercial production of recreational crack cocaine?

    4. If legalized, should drugs be taxed like cigarettes, or at the same tax rate as any other product? After all, it seems like if we make the tax on drugs too “profitable” for government, then they’ll end up promoting it as a means of getting more revenue to the detriment of society.

    5. Are there other countries that serve as case studies, for or against legalizing drugs?


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