Making the case for legalized drugs

2008060526Nearly four decades after President Nixon declared a “war on drugs” and one trillion dollars spent prosecuting that war, drugs have become more attainable, cheaper and  potent. You’d think fourteen years of prohibition would have left a lasting lesson for future generations of American lawmakers; Rendering a commodity that is in high demand by a populace illegal does not result in eradication. Quite the contrary it invites a lucrative, black market that just can’t wait to meet the needs of it’s consumers.

While legal markets operate within the confines of a regulated environment where production, marketing and legal disputes are settled, bloodlessly, within a governmental/legal system, the black market, certainly in terms of drugs, knows few bounds. Beyond feudal handshake agreements and the futile efforts of state law enforcement the governing factor of the drugs market is the gun. Be it small scale gang rivalries in American cities or large scale insurgencies the likes of which we see in Mexico the ultimate matter of settlement is not litigation but pure and simple violence.

In short the introduction of laws restricting commodities in high demand by a populace result in exactly the opposite of what was intended as they bring about a highly profitable illicit market and the simple yet incredibly violent regulatory process that it entails. Additionally this market is so profitable that despite dramatic, punitive measures the number of individuals willing to weigh risk vs profit vastly out perform the ability of nearly any state’s efforts of mitigation[1].

My small rant done (appreciate that you’ve read this far) I present two recent pieces that discuss the current state of affairs that is the “War on Drugs.”

Thomas Barnett at WPR presents an excellent overview of how a rising Latin America has reached it’s wits end with American’s foreign policy regarding the war on drugs and how, inevitably, the current American political myopia will end. I, as usual, encourage giving the piece a full read.

<blockquote>Meanwhile, across Latin America, there’s been widespread movement toward decriminalization. Why? Because the benefits of remaining on America’s “good side” on this hot-button issue have been overwhelmed by the negative externalities of overcrowded prisons, rampant drug-related violence, police corruption, and growing organized criminal networks.</blockquote>

Fora and Australia Broadcasting Corp. a panel discussion that takes a look not only at the politically facile elements of the drug war but also the financial aspect; the “prison industrial complex” and law enforcement agencies financially reliant on the continuation of the war on drugs. If you prefer to not see the video it’s whole length through I’d suggest at least paying attention to the first speaker, former chief of police in Seattle.

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The insistent prosecution of this “War on Drugs” seems to me to be analogous to ridding oneself of a migraine by smashing one’s head into an anvil. Continuously. And each time, bloodied and aching more than ever, insisting that the next time will prove the cure.

[1] Iran maintains both a leading drug addiction rate and the most extreme punitive measure of drug enforcement (death penalty.)

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17 Responses to Making the case for legalized drugs

  1. M-Bone says:

    “The Wire” and “The Corner” are my picks for the two strongest statements in favor of legalizing drugs and emphasizing treatment over punishment.

  2. McKellar says:

    Where does the political will to keep fighting the ‘War on Drugs’ come from? At times it seems to be a proxy for other conflicts, especially America’s peculiar institution of race, other times its just pure bureaucratic inertia, with well-funded agencies rewarding the politicians that fund them with high-profile arrests and photo-ops with piles of dope. As Mexico struggles, the War could become a rallying point for nativists, Minute Men, or anyone else that fears that the ‘American Way of Life’ is threatened by insidious forces seeping in from abroad.

  3. Curzon says:

    Ditto to M-Bone on The Wire (which polished the, um, rough corners of The Corner). A few months into his administration Obama indicated he might be rethinking this, but I’ve heard nothing since.

  4. Ernerst P Marr says:

    legalize, regulate, educate, tax.

    how does it feel if you are from an opium producing nation and
    the biggest economies in the world declare that your no.1
    selling product is illegal and declare a war on it.

    “run from the cure” on youtube makes compelling viewing.
    also “ecstacy rising”

    also, the possibilities of using DMT and psylocibin derivatives
    for curing mental diseases are huge.

    go to any UK city at a weekend to see the damage alcohol wreaks.
    it’s a good thing the health service is free…

  5. Richard says:

    And Russia is really ticked at the US for not doing more in Afghanistan to eradicate drugs. They have enough problems with alcohol.
    The problem is that most treatment methods are very costly per patient and the treatment cycle is lengthy and expensive..years
    Why would anyone, these days, thinks it would be a good idea to take meth/crack et al? They see the results..I am perplexed.

  6. M-Bone says:

    “which polished the, um, rough corners of The Corner”

    While I admire the HBO production of “The Corner”, it is the book that really shines. I highly recommend it as well as Simon’s “Homicide”.

  7. Master Cook says:

    I will submit its useful to distinguish between “small” drugs reform and “large” drugs reform.

    Reform being used to signify a liberalization of policy. Technically its possible to “reform” drug laws by making them more draconian -say police can execute people on the spot if caught with possession- but I’ve never seen it used in this sense and most proposals by the sort of people who have thought alot about the issue, including police, have tended to be in the direction of somewhat more liberal policies.

    “Small drug” reform is keeping prohibition, but aligning prohibition and regulation with the medical consensus on how harmful each drug is to its users and to other people, plus the difficulty in breaking addictions. This isn’t the case now. If done thoroughly, it might mean returning to prohibition on alcohol and legalizing or even encouraging (as a substitute depresssant and social drug for alcohol) cannabis.

    “Large drug” reform basically rejects prohibition as a tool, either on civil liberties grounds or on practical grounds, ie its too expensive, strengthens organized crime, etc. Other measures than legal prohibition to reduce drug consumption could be continued or increased.

    However, my sense is that people get their knickers twisted much more over “small” drug reform proposals than over “large” drug reform proposals. In the US, its really, really important compared to other priorities that we stamp out pot use, for example. Could it be that “small” drug reform has a better chance of actually being implemented?

    A Kaplan inspired site should probably note the crash of a US helicopter in Afghanistan recently while conducting a opium eradication mission, killing eighteen. Its just one incident, but it says something about what has happened to the US mission in Afghanistan.

  8. “Where does the political will to keep fighting the ‘War on Drugs’ come from?”

    The Prison-Industrial complex. This includes the companies that build prisons, that operate privatized prisons, that sell provisions and equipment to prisons, the local governments where prisons are located, the unions of the prison guards, the politicians who benefit from the status quo and the flow of money to these groups, and suburban parents who want “drugs” kept away from their children no matter what the cost — since that costs falls on other people in other places. America is a middle class country with little tolerance for low class behavior, and the median voter would rather lock up too many people rather than too few. Anyone attempting reform will be labelled as “soft on crime” and repudiated.

    This is a very powerful web of interests and inclinations, with a strong financial interest in keeping the largest possible number of people imprisoned.

    It is a pure example of a public interest problem ala Mancur Olson. The benefits are focused and have organized proponents and protectors — the costs are diffuse and have no focus or leadership to try to avert them.

  9. feeblemind says:

    Re ‘Where does the political will to keep fighting the war on drugs come from?’ In ‘fly over country’, drug legalization is hugely unpopular. People fear skyrocketing addiction and social costs after legalization. Politicians hear this. So we are stuck with the status quo.

  10. m-bone, I’ve caught a few episodes of The Wire and found them to be quite good. Gritty and seemingly realistic.

    CZ, One thing Obama has done is to not follow his predecessor in “leaning” on Latin American countries looking to soften (the small scale sort mentioned above) their drug strategies.

    E P Marr thanks for the suggested viewing, indeed you have to wonder what roadblocks medicine faces with criminalization of drugs.

    Richard why would anyone think it a good idea to suck in smoke from burning carcinogens? We are a species curious by nature with a general proclivity to ignore dangers and risks in return for new, pleasurable experiences.

    Master Cook, I’m assuming you meant they get their knickers twisted in a knot over large drug reform? Small drug reform may be more politically feasible and a good start but I doubt in the long haul it will be enough.

    McKellar, what Lexington Green and feeblemind said with this addition; it’s much easier for politicians to address a major societal issue by setting up an ideological “bad guy” to explain away the problems. We see this with gun control here in the US where violent crime is explained away with “we need to get rid of the guns.” It’s an easy out and allows them to side step more complex and difficult issues such as education, lack of ethnic/cultural integration, the virtual sub-culture created by a perpetuating welfare cycle, etc. In the case of drugs the reaction to a rise in smuggling, drug violence and addiction isn’t to take a look at outlying social issues and obviously failed policy, rather it’s to invent an enemy and declare a war on it.

  11. kurt9 says:

    I have always thought that drug prohibition (prohibition II) is as senseless as alcohol prohibition (prohibition I).

    The Economist had a very well-balanced presentation on the pros and cons of ending such prohibition about 10 years ago. They quite openly admitted that ending prohibition would result in a 5 times increase in the number of addicts. Yet they concluded cautiously in favor of ending prohibition.

    Much of the drug laws came about not as a result of the actual medical ill-effects of drug abuse, but rather as a result of the belief that it is somehow “immoral” to “get high” even if their are no ill effects on one’s physiology as a result of it. I think such a non-contractual concept of morality is not only irrational, but unnecessary for modern civilization.

  12. lirelou says:

    It makes very little sense to enforce the drug laws against Marijuana users. Certainly there should be consequences for any damage they do while under the influence, i.e. traffic accidents, etc. But, there is little likelihood of simply doing away with the so-called drug war against harder drugs, and we do have a right to evaluate that policy in light of the amount of social damage they cause. But there are many civil avenues which could impose penalties for hard drug use and their consequences. The production of drugs is not the primary problem. Rather, it is the consumption, and it does not appear that the market is going away soon. A partial liberalization would allow local governments to concentrate on the more dangerous drugs. As for Mexico, they thought that drug smuggling was not their problem, until they discovered that the same smuggling networks that shipped drugs north could bring guns south. And what made that especially deadly is the plethora of gangster and military style firearms available for sale within the U.S.. One would think that a coherent anti-drug strategy would include a reasonable policy of regulating the sale of firearms and ammunition. Yet the very people who propose tough measures to combat drugs tend to be the same ones so virulently oppose any controls on the sale and possession of firearms.

    ps. I lost all respect for the ‘war on drugs’ when we temporarily suspended all military aid to Colombia after the Colombian Air Force shot down a drug aircraft. One of the idiots responsible for that decision later became the Drug “Czar”.

  13. McKellar says:

    Does anyone else see the war on drugs as a euphemism for a 4G-style ethnic/race/class conflict? In the US, it seems like an excuse to incarcerate black men, and I know Mao used his campaigns against opium to weed out petty rivals. Drug prosecutions in other countries must be equally selective.

    As far as the US pursuing the war abroad, it again seems like a proxy war, with the real goal to be the establishment and expansion of a US sphere of influence through violence without attacking the countries themselves, just the drug syndicates that happen to operate there. If that’s the case, the rise in the cartel’s power in Mexico could lead to a virtual annexation of Mexico by the US through actions related to the drug war (not that we want to annex Mexico, we just want them to follow our laws).

    The Drug war could very well turn out to be the big war of the 21st century, and about something wholly unrelated to drug use.

  14. UNRR says:

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 11/14/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  15. Bison says:

    I think the war on drugs is a war meant not to be won. There is too much money to be made by too many people. The trafficer, the street peddler, the corrupt law enforcement official, and the sleazy politician do not want to see a change. In the mid ’90s, I participated in an inter-agency exercise which involved many law enforcement agencies. The DEA participant told me that the labor union which represents the DEA negotiated a provision which prevents DEA agents along the U.S./Mexican border from being involuntarily reassigned. The point being there is money to be made by some corrupt officials, and they do not want to see things change.

  16. Bison, indeed that seems to be a very large part of the resistance to scrapping what has been an abysmal failure.

  17. Shawn says:

    Since the masses are easily mislead by power or money hungry politicians that will spew any amount of rubbish as long as it rallies them enough support to be elected, when will it be possible to move forward as a society on this issue? Or on any other issue for that matter.

    Even though I personally don’t want to smoke crack at the moment, I should be able to smoke crack if I wanted to and not be thrown in jail for it as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. It is my business, not the government’s. But if people felt like they could do what they wanted, how long would our massive country last as a world power?

    It would be helpful if more power shifted to state and local governments (counties, cities, etc) because you could chose to live in a place that suited your beliefs.

    But whenever businesses get in bed with the government (this is an argument for smaller government mind you) things get very corrupt. The war industry is one of the worst offenders, but not the only one.

    The founding fathers said every generation needs a revolution of some sort. We are probably due.