40 Years of Drug Prohibition

It was 40 years ago today that President Richard Nixon said the “drug menace” had reached the dimensions of a “national emergency.”  Nixon asked Congress to allocate $155 million to fight drug abuse and requested a new central office in the White House to coordinate governmental efforts on the problem.  Thus began the modern drug war.  It’s true that criminal laws were already in place in many jurisdictions, but it was Nixon’s call for a “new, all-out offensive” that really started to ramp things up.  Each year brought calls for more money–and that  meant more police, more raids, more wiretaps, more arrests, and more prisons.  And more foreign intervention.

The Associated Press ran a good article that examined the 40 year policy and the trillion dollars that went into the policy.   Here’s an excerpt:

Using Freedom of Information Act requests, archival records, federal budgets and dozens of interviews with leaders and analysts, the AP tracked where [all the] money went, and found that the United States repeatedly increased budgets for programs that did little to stop the flow of drugs. In 40 years, taxpayers spent more than:

— $20 billion to fight the drug gangs in their home countries. In Colombia, for example, the United States spent more than $6 billion, while coca cultivation increased and trafficking moved to Mexico — and the violence along with it.

— $33 billion in marketing “Just Say No”-style messages to America’s youth and other prevention programs. High school students report the same rates of illegal drug use as they did in 1970, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says drug overdoses have “risen steadily” since the early 1970s to more than 20,000 last year.

— $49 billion for law enforcement along America’s borders to cut off the flow of illegal drugs. This year, 25 million Americans will snort, swallow, inject and smoke illicit drugs, about 10 million more than in 1970, with the bulk of those drugs imported from Mexico.

— $121 billion to arrest more than 37 million nonviolent drug offenders, about 10 million of them for possession of marijuana. Studies show that jail time tends to increase drug abuse.

— $450 billion to lock those people up in federal prisons alone. Last year, half of all federal prisoners in the U.S. were serving sentences for drug offenses.

Read the whole thing.

I hosted a debate this week to mark this unfortunate policy milestone.  Cato senior fellow Jeff Miron squared off against Dr. Robert DuPont, who was one of the key policy staffers in the Nixon White House in 1971.  Dr. DuPont remains convinced that the present policy approach is essentially correct.   Watch the event and decide for yourself.

In my 2000 book, After Prohibition, Milton Friedman noted that America’s drug war policy had dozens of negative consequences.  One consequence that he believed received too little attention was the policy’s effect on other people around the world.  Friedman said the policy was responsible for the deaths of “hundreds of thousands of people at home and abroad by fighting a war that should never have been started.”   The violence in Mexico confirms Friedman’s analysis.  The Los Angeles Times recently reported that more than 34,000 people have been killed during the government’s crackdown over just the past four years.

Ending the drug war is one of the signature issues for the Cato Institute.  The other think tanks in Washington, DC–Brookings, AEI, and Heritage–support the drug war.  We believe the drug war will eventually be widely recognized as a tragic mistake in much the same way as we presently look back upon the days of alcohol prohibition.

For additional Cato work related to drug policy, go here.