December 11, 2011
War on Drugs - various opposition
In perhaps no other public-policy question is the United States more hopelessly in the grip of a conventional wisdom that is utterly and egregiously wrong than drugs. Most Americans, no matter their political affiliation, are adamant supporters of the "war on drugs." Try suggesting that the war might be stupendous folly and you'll most likely run into vehement opposition replete with ad hominem attacks.
It is hard to get people to examine their ideas--"prejudices" might be a better word--about drugs, but in Drug War Crimes, Boston University economics professor Jeffrey Miron has put into the public discourse an attack on the conventional wisdom that is impossible for any serious-minded person to brush off. Written with a professional economist's careful attention to costs and benefits, both seen and unseen, the book relentlessly challenges all the beliefs that support the criminalization of drugs.
Miron begins by toting up some of the principal costs of our anti-drug crusade. Government spends more than $33 billion annually on it. Arrests for drug-related infractions exceed 1.5 million per year. The United States now has well in excess of 300,000 people behind bars for drug violations. If they're even aware of the cost, drug-war supporters contend that we would experience a disastrous rise in drug use--which is assumed to be a life-ruining event--and therefore worth it. Prohibitionists assert that "drug use causes crime, diminishes health and productivity, encourages driving and industrial accidents, exacerbates poverty, supports terrorism and contributes generally to societal decay," Miron writes. Those beliefs are carefully reinforced by spokesmen for the drug war. Our author takes on all those claims and shows them to be erroneous.
Consider, for example, the widely held idea that drug use causes crime. Statistics show that in 35 cities monitored by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2000, at least 50 percent of adult men arrested for crimes tested positive for drugs. That's enough to frighten the typical citizen into supporting the drug war. After all, who wants more crime? But Miron points out that those statistics don't show that drug usage causes criminal behavior or that the arrestees were under the influence of drugs at the time of the crime. "The methodology used in these analyses would also demonstrate that consumption of fast food or wearing blue jeans causes criminal behavior," Miron observes with appropriate sarcasm.
Another mistaken belief that leads to support for the drug war is that any drug use almost inevitably leads to addiction and an increasingly dissolute life. That notion causes people to view drug use as so dangerous as to warrant the extreme measures the government employs in its attempt to prevent anyone from using any illegal drug in any amount. Miron shows that belief to be unfounded. Drug use may be addictive, but is not necessarily so and many drug users lead perfectly normal lives. True, some users suffer adverse health consequences, but, the author observes, "A critical problem with standard depictions of the health consequences of drug use is reliance on data sources that are systematically biased toward those who suffer the worst consequences."
For all our costly enforcement efforts, Miron shows that drug prohibition has little impact on the incidence of drug use, mainly because drug producers and sellers can evade law enforcement so easily. Yet the costs extend beyond the obvious ones already mentioned. One of them is increased racial tension because drug enforcement is so often targeted at minority areas.
Another is a great increase in violence. Miron argues that without drug prohibition, homicide rates in the United States would fall by half. A third is the non-availability of drugs, particularly marijuana, for medical reasons, thus causing much avoidable pain and suffering. By the time our author is done with his analysis of costs and benefits, it is clear that the war on drugs is an exceedingly foolish policy.
Miron advocates legalization rather than any of the halfway alternatives sometimes advanced. He concludes by saying, "American tradition should make legalization--i.e., liberty--the preferred policy, barring compelling evidence prohibition generates benefits in excess of its costs. As I have demonstrated here, a serious weighing of the evidence shows instead that prohibition has enormous costs with, at best, modest and speculative benefits. Liberty and utility thus both recommend that prohibition end now: the goals of prohibition are questionable, the methods are unsound, and the results are deadly."
After Prohibition: An Adult Approach to Drug Policies in the 21st Century by Timothy Lynch
A Considerable Spectrum of Opinions on the Drug War
By Timothy Lynch - Editor • June 2002
Posted June 01, 2002
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Cato Institute • 2000 • 193 pages • $18.95
Reviewed by Kevin B. Zeese
As the title indicates, this book takes an adult approach to drug issues. While most politicians argue over the mix of drug war funding--interdiction, eradication, law enforcement, treatment, or prevention--After Prohibition avoids merely moving around the furniture on the Titanic and takes a different approach; it recognizes the bankruptcy of current drug policy and seeks to come up with a new paradigm for the 21st century.
Not many attempt to argue these days that we are winning the war on drugs. It is difficult to keep a straight face when you do hear someone make that claim. We have spent approximately a half a trillion tax dollars--federal, state, and local--on the drug war since 1980. The facts show we are worse off now than when we began.
Timothy Lynch, director of the Cato Institute's Project on Criminal Justice, has brought together in this book (based on a Cato conference) a collection of essays by individuals who, for the most part, recognize the folly of our attempts to prohibit drug use and want to see change in our policy. There is a considerable spectrum of opinion represented here, ranging from those who want to end the drug war altogether to those who believe it must continue.
Lynch first describes Cato's position, which is that the United States would be better off with no drug laws: "The most valuable lesson that can be drawn from the experience of alcohol prohibition is that government cannot effectively engineer social arrangements. Policymakers simply cannot repeal the economic laws of supply and demand. Nor can they foresee the unintended consequences that invariably follow federal intervention. Students of American history will someday wonder how today's lawmakers could readily admit that alcohol prohibition was a disastrous mistake but recklessly pursue a policy of drug prohibition."
Roger Pilon, Cato's vice president for legal affairs, puts drug policy into a broader perspective, declaring drug prohibition to be beyond the constitutional power of the federal government.
What to put in the place of drug prohibition? Lynch answers, "Education, moral suasion, and social pressure are the only appropriate ways to discourage adult drug use in a free and civil society."
Other contributors to the book include former DEA agent Michael Levine, former San Jose, California, police chief Joseph D. McNamara, University of Missouri professor of criminology David Klinger, Independent Institute research director David B. Kopel, Yale Law School professor Steven Duke, former California Attorney General Dan Lungren, George Mason University law professor Daniel Polsby, Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson.
One of the most insightful pieces is by McNamara. He brings the clear thinking of someone who was a cop on the streets of Harlem in the 1950s and rose to become police chief of California's fourth largest city. After recounting personal stories of policing that demonstrate the futility of trying to prevent drug use, he points out the rising expenditures on drug control. In 1972, when President Nixon called for a drug war, the drug budget was roughly $100 million. Today the federal budget is approaching $20 billion annually. He asks: "What have we got for our money?" In addition to the undiminished problem of drug abuse, he notes that drug profits--markups as great as 17,000 percent--have corrupted public officials and created widespread violence. McNamara urges that we stop making what is merely an unconventional lifestyle a crime.
The only disappointing essay is Lungren's. He merely reiterates the familiar drug-war rhetoric and despite the strong counterarguments voiced at the conference, could only say, "we should always be ready to re-examine our positions."
After Prohibition comes at an important time in the evolution of the drug war. Our military is becoming increasingly involved in the anti-drug effort in Colombia; we've gone through a record prison-building binge largely to house drug offenders; and the public seems to be tiring of the never-ending crusade. Moreover, it is becoming evident that we can no longer afford to continue it when we are in a real war with terrorists--especially when drug prohibition is a major source of their revenue.
Kevin Zeese is the president of Common Sense for Drug Policy, www.csdp.org.