I wrote an op‐ed about ending the drug war in the New York Times in 1988. It’s taking the world a long time to come around to my position. Meanwhile, the effects of prohibition persist. I complained in 1988 about 824,000 arrests a year. It was more than 1.6 million in 2018. I noted that the federal government was spending $3.9 billion a year on the drug war, and the figure is far higher now, though estimates vary.
This week’s newspapers have reminded me of some of the less immediately obvious effects of prohibition. As with alcohol prohibition in the 1920s, it’s not enough simply to announce a ban on the possession, use, and/or sale of some substance. Since people want to use the substance — that’s why other people want to ban it — the law will have to be enforced. That means police, arrests, courts, prisons, and billions of tax dollars. And some amount of violence will be involved, both by the police and among rival drug sellers. Almost half the people in federal prisons are there on drug‐related charges.
The Washington Post reports, “Thousands of federal inmates serving their sentences at home under supervision during the coronavirus pandemic might have to return to prison when the pandemic ends.” Among those inmates:
Gwen Levi, 75, is one of the inmates trying to stay out of federal prison. She was sent to home confinement in June after serving 16 years of a 24‐year sentence for conspiracy to sell at least one kilogram of heroin. She lives in Baltimore with her 94‐year‐old mother.…Wendy Hechtman had served three years of a 15‐year sentence for drug manufacturing when she was transferred to home confinement in December from a federal prison in Connecticut.
What purpose will be served by sending those women back to prison?
In a separate story the Post reports:
A Black man was fatally shot by a sheriff’s deputy in Elizabeth City, N.C., as police were attempting to arrest him Wednesday.…Pasquotank County Sheriff Tommy Wooten said in a video statement that the deputy fired at Brown when he started to flee as authorities tried to serve him a search warrant and an arrest warrant on felony drug charges.
On the opening day of law school, I always counsel my first‐year students never to support a law they are not willing to kill to enforce. Usually they greet this advice with something between skepticism and puzzlement, until I remind them that the police go armed to enforce the will of the state, and if you resist, they might kill you.
That point applies to many more laws than the drug laws. But drug prohibition does seem to bring out the violence, in both the black‐market business and the obsessive, futile efforts to enforce laws that millions of Americans violate. Those North Carolina police officers should have thought: Is this drug charge really worth shooting a man over?
Meanwhile, also in today’s Washington Post I read that the Food and Drug Administration is considering whether to ban menthol cigarettes. The Post says that “the FDA has held back, because of opposition from the tobacco industry, which spends tens of millions of dollars a year on lobbying.” It does not mention that the agency may also have held back because of the serious doubts that it has the legal authority to ban tobacco products. It does note that “Opposition has also come from GOP and Democratic officials as well as civil rights groups and leaders, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Al Sharpton, who have said that banning menthol would risk police targeting Black Americans for selling illegal cigarettes.”
No kidding. The last thing we need is yet another ban on a substance that a lot of people use, which will inevitably lead to more arrests, more incarcerations, and more confrontations that may end in death. One good way to reform policing and improve police‐community relations is to repeal laws against actions that don’t violate the rights of others. Let the police arrest people for murder, rape, assault, theft, and vandalism, not for smoking and selling tobacco, e‐cigarettes, or marijuana.