Commentary

Let’s Quit the Drug War

This article originally appeared in the New York Times on March 17, 1988.
An antiwar song that helped get the Smothers Brothers thrown off network television in the 60’s went this way: “We’re waist deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool says to push on.” Today we’re waist-deep in another unwinnable war, and many political leaders want to push on. This time it’s a war on drugs. About 23 million Americans use illicit drugs every month, despite annual federal outlays of $3.9 billion. Even the arrests of 824,000 Americans a year don’t seem to be having much effect.

As in the case of Vietnam—and Prohibition, another unwinnable war—many politicians can’t stand losing a war. Instead of acknowledging failure, they want to escalate.

Mayor Edward I. Koch of New York suggests that we strip search every person entering the United States from Mexico or Southeast Asia. The White House drug adviser, Donald I. Macdonald, calls for arresting even small time users—lawyers with a quarter gram of cocaine, high school kids with a couple of joints—and bringing them before a judge.

Where will we put those two-bit “criminals”? The Justice Department recommends doubling our prison capacity, even though President Reagan’s former drug adviser Carlton E. Turner already brags about the role of drug laws in bringing about a 60 percent increase in our prison population in the last six years. Bob Dole calls for the death penalty for drug sellers.

Like their counterparts in Los Angeles and Chicago, the Washington, D.C., police are to be issued semiautomatic pistols so they can engage in ever bloodier shootouts with drug dealers. Members of the District of Columbia Council call for the National Guard to occupy the city. We’ve already pressed other governments to destroy drug crops and to help us interdict the flow of drugs into the United States. Because those measures have largely failed, the Customs Service asks authorization to “use appropriate force” to compel places suspected of carrying drugs to land, including the authority to shoot them down.

It’s time to ask ourselves: What kind of society would condone strip searches, large-scale arrests, military occupation of its capital city and the shooting of possibly innocent people in order to stop some of its citizens from using substances that others don’t like?

Prohibition of alcohol in the 1920’s failed because it proved impossible to stop people from drinking. Our 70-year effort at prohibition of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin has also failed. Tens of millions of Americans, including senators, presidential candidates, a Supreme Court nominee and conservative journalists, have broken the laws against such drugs. Preserving laws that are so widely flouted undermines respect for all laws.

The most dangerous drugs in the United States are alcohol, which is responsible for about 100,000 deaths a year, and tobacco, which is responsible for about 350,000. Heroin, cocaine and marijuana account for a total of 3,600 deaths a year—even though one in five people ages 20 to 40 use drugs regularly.

Our efforts to crack down on illegal drug use have created new problems. A Justice Department survey reports that 70 percent of those arrested for serious crimes are drug users, which may mean that “drugs cause crime.” A more sophisticated analysis suggests that the high cost of drugs, a result of their prohibition, forces drug users to turn to crime to support an unnecessarily expensive habit.

Drug prohibition, by giving young people the thrill of breaking the law and giving pushers a strong incentive to find new customers, may actually increase the number of drug users. Moreover, our policy of pressuring friendly governments to wipe out drug cultivation has undermined many of those regimes and provoked resentment against us among their citizens and government officials.

We can either escalate the war on drugs, which would have dire implications for civil liberties and the right to privacy, or find a way to gracefully withdraw. Withdrawal should not be viewed as an endorsement of drug use; it would simply be an acknowledgment that the cost of this war—billions of dollars, runaway crime rates and restrictions on our personal freedom—is too high.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of Libertarianism: A Primer.