Casualties of the War on Drugs

Prohibition is an awful flop.
  We like it.
It can't stop what it's meant to stop.
  We like it.
It's left a trail of graft and slime,
It don't prohibit worth a dime,
It's filled our land with vice and crime.
  Nevertheless, we're for it.
               -  Franklin P. Adams (1931)

That was written as a commentary on the 1931 Wickersham Commission report, which concluded that while nothing they tried had had any success, the prohibition on alcohol could be made to work if they only had enough resources. Fortunately, the American public didn't buy that argument anymore and within two years the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed.

Prohibition was not ended because people had a change of heart and decided that alcohol really wasn't that bad after all. Prohibition was ended because crime was rampant, the jails were full, the police were corrupt, the costs for enforcement had risen to over $26 million per year (nearly 1% of Federal spending), and per capita consumption of alcohol had risen back to pre-prohibition levels.

In short, the situation in 1931 with regard to Prohibition was about the same as it is today with the War on Drugs. Perhaps it is time to question whether the War on Drugs does more damage than good.

So what are the costs of the drug laws?

First, obviously, there are the direct costs of enforcement. The last figure I've come across (in 1991) is $7.9 billion (nearly 1% of Federal spending). This does not include state and local law enforcement, nor the portion of the military budget corresponding to our anti-smuggling foreign policy (which has already produced at least one war so far). Nor does this include the costs of jailing approximately 95,000 people convicted of possession or dealing, and Lord knows how many for drug related crimes.

(By drug related crimes, what we are talking about are crimes performed to support an addiction and crimes committed between warring drug dealers. These problems are a direct consequence of the drug laws, not the drugs themselves. As with prohibition, such crimes will fade into memory once the laws are repealed.)

Second there is about $6 billion per year in stolen property and 8,250 deaths per year attributable to the War on Drugs. The death figures break down into 1,600 in street crime, 750 in black market murders, 3,500 in drug related AIDS, and 2,400 poisoned from bad drugs. In addition, now that the jails are full, each person imprisoned for possesion causes the early release of a career criminal, who will commit an average of 40 robberies, 7 assaults, 110 burglaries, and 25 auto thefts per year per person.

Thirdly, there is the corruption of government. Suffice it to say that the problem is serious and growing. It has been estimated that 50% of all vice officers either were drug dealers at one time, will become drug dealers when they retire, or are dealing now. The drug trade is simply too lucrative. Even if the police were to wipe out all drug smuggling by the black market, they would simply take it over themselves (just like prison guards do).

Finally, there is the erosion of the Constitution. As a victimless crime, it is very difficult to enforce drug laws without violating the other rights of those involved. The Supreme Court has been turning a blind eye to such violations, arguing that "the overiding interests of the state" are more important than the Constitution. This is particularly true in the case of the RICO law, which conficates a suspect's property without due process and does not require proof of criminal activity.

With growing frustration at the failure of the War on Drugs, legislators and judges become ever more desperate. We have become the biggest jailer in the world, worse even than the Soviet Union and South Africa. There are continuing calls for death sentences for drug offenders, or to declare a National Emergency (that is, to suspend the Constitution).

For that matter, prohibition was constitutional only because we passed the Eighteenth Amendment. According to the Tenth Amendment, without the Eighteenth Amendment, the Federal government lacked the authority to prohibit alcohol. We never passed an amendment for the War on Drugs. By any honest reading of the Constitution, the entire War on Drugs is unconstitutional, and any government official who enforces such laws is in violation of his oath of office.

Against all this is the one benefit of the War on Drugs: the unproven assumption that drug laws reduce drug usage. Since the odds on being caught for using drugs is so low, and since drugs are readily available in every community, the laws against drugs are not much of a deterrent and anyone who wants to use drugs probably already does so (current estimates are about 2 million illicit drug users).

Nor are these substances so dangerous that even the slightest tolerance would produce a drug epidemic. Despite hysterical propaganda to the contrary, the ratio for drug addicts to casual users remains about the same for all such substances, from crack cocaine to alcohol. This is not to say that drugs aren't dangerous, but rather that alcohol is dangerous (as statistics readily verify) and society has survived in spite of the danger.

Using prohibition as a model, per capita alcohol consumption reduced more in the years immediately before prohibition went into effect than afterward, presumably as a consequence of the same temperance movement which produced the prohibition. This trend continued until 1921, at which point it quickly rose again to 1917 levels, and continued slowly rising. After prohibition ended, alcohol consumption rose suddenly, then began to slowly drop again. Today, as non-alcohol beer and wine coolers take an expanding slice of the beverage market, prohibition seems like a sad joke.

Also, while prohibition was in effect, consumption switched from beer to distilled spirits, and from low proof versions to high proof versions. (Called the "Iron Law of Prohibition" by Richard Cowan.) The reason is that higher concentrations are easier to smuggle. The same effect is visible today, in that increased police activity raised the price of marijuana but actually reduced the price of cocaine, as many smugglers switched products in order to stay in business.

One should not forget that there was no significant drug problem before the War on Drugs, and that our drug problem developed while the drug prohibition was in full effect. Nor did we import our problem, having long since passed every other country in that regard. There is every reason to suspect that our drug problem is a direct consequence of our drug prohibition.

The key element to this hypothesis is that drug laws make the drug trade so lucrative. Each drug dealer has an interest in expanding his clientele, and the conspicuous success of drug dealers will encourage others to take up the trade. With large numbers of relatively wealthy people trying their best to increase the number of drug users, they are bound to succeed. The other elements of the community simply lack the resources to combat this influence.

If, as all the evidence indicates, the War on Drugs simply cannot be justified in terms of costs verses benefits, then a successful replacement policy must take the profit out of the drug trade. It is not sufficient to adopt the British model, for while it is more compassionate toward drug addicts, it does little to eliminate the black market. Instead I propose the alcohol model for drugs: sale only by licensed outlets, and no sales to minors.

The thing to remember is that there are many good and successful ways to fight drugs, but these do not require that drugs be against the law. In fact, they generally work better without such laws. People are much more likely to seek help if they aren't afraid of being arrested or losing their job as a consequence. Nor will anti-drug propaganda be persuasive so long as it is associated with disreputable organizations such as the government.