|Afghanistan, Helmand province. A US Marine greets local children working in the field of opium poppies near the military base. Source: Wikipedia Commons |
Overwhelming evidence of failure is seldom a barrier to puritans and moral do-gooders in their advocacies and in 1971 President Richard Nixon, a heavy drinker and possibly an alcoholic, declared war on drugs. and proclaimed in an address to congress, “America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.”
In May 1972, Milton Friedman (1912-2006) — America's most celebrated free market economist — wrote in his Newsweek magazine column:
"The reign of tears is over. The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and comcribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent."
That is how Billy Sunday, the noted evangelist and leading crusader against Demon Rum, greeted the onset of Prohibition in early 1920. We know now how tragically his hopes were doomed. New prisons and jails had to be built to house the criminals spawned by converting the drinking of spirits into a crime against the state. Prohibition undermined respect for the law, corrupted the minions of the law, created a decadent moral climate — but did not stop the consumption of alcohol.
Despite this tragic object lesson, we seem bent on repeating precisely the same mistake in the handling of drugs.]
Prof Friedman added: "The harm to us from the addiction of others arises almost wholly from the fact that drugs are illegal...Legalizing drugs would simultaneously reduce the amount of crime and raise the quality of law enforcement. Can you conceive of any other measure that would accomplish so much to promote law and order?"
Nixon told congress that “as long as there is a demand, there will be those willing to take the risks of meeting the demand" — nevertheless he ordered massive pressure on Mexico to reduce drug supplies by clamping down on marijuana growing.
The Drugs Policy Alliance, a US advocacy group, says that, "Between 1973 and 1977  eleven states decriminalized marijuana possession. In January 1977, President Jimmy Carter was inaugurated on a campaign platform that included marijuana decriminalization. In October 1977, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use."
Carter himself had not supported legalization and President Ronald Reagan from 1981 supported zero tolerance for illegal drug use
University of Chicago economists, Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy, wrote in The Wall Street Journal in 2013: "The total number of persons incarcerated in state and federal prisons in the US has grown from 330,000 in 1980 to about 1.6m today. Much of the increase in this population is directly due to the war on drugs and the severe punishment for persons convicted of drug trafficking. About 50% of the inmates in federal prisons and 20% of those in state prisons have been convicted of either selling or using drugs. The many minor drug traffickers and drug users who spend time in jail find fewer opportunities for legal employment after they get out of prison, and they develop better skills at criminal activities."
The economists quoted an annual direct cost of the war for the US government at $40bn and others estimate that over $1tn has been spent since 1971. They say a number of factors may explain the continuing high dropout rate of 25% for black and Hispanic children and they cite "the temptation to drop out of school in order to profit from the drug trade."
The United States has the largest prison population in the world.
Becker and Murphy noted:
The paradox of the war on drugs is that the harder governments push the fight, the higher drug prices become to compensate for the greater risks. That leads to larger profits for traffickers who avoid being punished. This is why larger drug gangs often benefit from a tougher war on drugs, especially if the war mainly targets small-fry dealers and not the major drug gangs. Moreover, to the extent that a more aggressive war on drugs leads dealers to respond with higher levels of violence and corruption, an increase in enforcement can exacerbate the costs imposed on society."
In Mexico the use of the army by former president Felipe Calderón in the period 2006-2012 to root out drug cartels resulted in about 60,000 deaths according to Human Rights Watch.
The Economist says that the illegal-drug industry’s revenues "are some $300bn a year, according to the very roughest of guesses by the UN, and flow untaxed into criminal hands. Drug-running mafias corrupt and destroy the places where they operate. Of the world’s eight most murderous countries, seven lie on the cocaine-trafficking route from the Andes to the United States and Europe. Only war zones are more violent than Honduras. More than 7,000 of its 8m citizens are murdered each year. In the European Union, with a 500m population, the figure is under 6,000."
"Since 1998, when the UN held an event entitled “A drug-free world: we can do it,” consumption of cannabis (marijuana) and cocaine has risen by about 50%; for opiates, it has more than trebled. And a swelling pharmacopoeia of synthetic highs is spinning heads in dizzying new ways. The UN reckons that 230m people used illegal drugs in 2010."
In 2012 Calderón, the outgoing president of Mexico, conceded that it is “impossible” to stop the drugs business and called for “market alternatives.”
Several US states have either decriminalized small scale possession of marijuana or made it equivalent to a minor traffic violation.
In Ecuador, the political group supporting Rafael Correa, the president, is pushing a bill in the congress that would regulate consumption of outlawed drugs, including marijuana and cocaine, along with alcohol and other legal highs, like industrial solvents.
Taxing legal production of currently illegal drugs would drive criminals from the industry as it did in the US alcohol sector after the ending of Prohibition in America.
As the prohibitionists who would not be convinced by evidence of failure and human catastrophe after almost half a century, die off, sanity and reason will increasingly get an audience.
Finfacts Blog: What happened when Portugal decriminalised drugs — Overdose deaths fell to lowest in Europe
Guardian in 2015 on the brutal US system: Jailed at 17 for a drug crime in 1988, Rick Wershe Jr is still behind bars. Why?