End the Drug War: The American People are Not the Enemy

Drug use is bad. Arresting people for using drugs is worse. With the states of Colorado and Washington leading the way, the federal government should drop criminal penalties against those who produce, sell, and consume drugs.

The so-called Drug War has been a violent, often deadly, assault on the American people. There’s no obvious moral reason to demonize the use of mind-altering substances which are widely used around the globe. Obviously, drugs can be abused, but so can almost anything else. 

Some people still may abhor drug use as a matter of personal moral principle, but the criminal law should focus on inter-personal morality, that is, behavior which directly affects others. Basing criminal strictures on intra-personal morality essentially puts government into the business of soul-molding, a task for which it has demonstrated little aptitude. 

Moreover, whatever one’s moral sensibilities, drug prohibition has allowed extremely high use while yielding all of the counterproductive impacts of criminalization. The direct enforcement costs run more than $40 billion a year and affect every level of government. Forgone tax revenue is even greater. Attempting to suppress an enduring and profitable trade also has corrupted virtually every institution it has touched—police, prosecution, judiciary, Drug Enforcement Agency, and even military. 

As I point out in my article for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute,

Perhaps the most perverse impact of the Drug War has been to injure and kill users.  Far from protecting people from themselves, prohibition actually makes drug use more dangerous.  For instance, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman chose to use heroin, but he could never be certain as to its quality, purity, and potency.

Threatening addicts with jail also makes them less likely to seek assistance. The drug war encourages needle-sharing by IV drug users. Congressional lawmakers fight to keep marijuana off-limits to the ill.

Nor is there any way to run a war against tens of millions of Americans without sacrificing their and our constitutional liberties. Indeed, the crusade against drug use has turned the supposed “land of the free” into a prison state.  Drug offenders account for more than half of federal convicts. Roughly one fifth of state prisoners are in for drug crimes. 

Ironically, the Drug War creates more and more dangerous crimes.  As during Prohibition violence becomes the ultimate business guarantee in an illegal marketplace. Abundant drug revenues also underwrite criminal gangs and organizations.  Even the late James Q. Wilson, who supported drug prohibition, admitted that “It is not clear that enforcing the laws against drug use would reduce crime.  On the contrary, crime may be caused by such enforcement.” 

One still could imagine attempting to justify the Drug War if it eliminated drug abuse.  However, drug prohibition has the most impact where it is least needed—discouraging some casual use. 

Government figures indicate that nearly half of Americans older than 12 have tried illegal drugs. Tens of millions of people consume with some regularity. 

Frustration with the Drug War was manifested by the decision of voters in Colorado and Washington to legalize recreational marijuana use. Uruguay has done the same, with pressure rising in other Latin American nations to shift away from prohibition.   

Congress should allow America’s states to experiment. Drugs could be sold with varying restrictions (evident with both alcohol and cigarettes).  Greatest law enforcement efforts should remain directed at kids, which would be easier in a semi-legal gray market.

Legalization would not be a scary jump into the unknown. Portugal decriminalized all drugs a decade ago. Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Switzerland have permitted some legal drug use. A dozen American states previously decriminalized marijuana consumption and many more legalized the use of medical marijuana.  While these policies have not been problem-free, none have seen challenges approaching those caused by criminal prohibition. 

People should not abuse drugs. It might be best if they didn’t use them at all. However, that is no justification for a war against drug users, arresting many and endangering all. 

American governments at all levels should terminate the Drug War.  It is time to stop treating the American people as the enemy.