America's War on Drugs: Misguided efforts that waste resources and sacrifice civil liberties


by Mike Kroll


Historically wars exact a huge cost in national treasure, lives lost, victims injured and liberty sacrificed. Politicians who start or promote wars typically do so by advocating the action as a response to some great evil; real, imagined or (most commonly) grossly exaggerated. And once such a war is commenced politicians discover that to save political face they must continue to misrepresent the facts and sustain the illusion that if we only assert the will to continue the fight and pay the mounting costs some day the war can be won.

This political fiction is as true about the War in Iraq as it is about the much older War on Drugs. There is no denying that the costs have been very high in both instances and the rationale either fiction, fantasy or self-serving ignorance. And ultimately neither war is winnable and a honorable exit strategy elusive at best. Perhaps what is saddest about both of these wars is that so much real good could have been accomplished with the resources squandered.

According to figures from the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University the annual financial cost of the Drug War tops $50 billion with $30 billion of that spent by state and local governments. At an estimated 2.3 million inmates America leads the world in its rate of incarceration and over half of those inmates are serving time for drug-related offenses. By year-end 2006 drug arrests are expected to exceed 1.5 people according to the FBI with well over half of those arrests involving marijuana. Today over 400,000 law enforcement officers are dedicated full-time to the War on Drugs; a number that far exceeds

The first real national efforts to combat drug use with law enforcement date back to the Harrison Narcotic Act in 1914 that first regulated the interstate distribution of opiate related drugs although a number of states had previously passed legislation controlling narcotics. The amount of attention devoted to drug control was minor at the time and easily eclipsed by religious-based efforts to ban other more traditional vices such as alcohol, gambling and prostitution. In 1919 America began the failed experiment of alcohol prohibition that closely mirrors today's war of drugs in both approach and effectiveness. The nation lost faith it that crusade in 1933 when Prohibition was repealed.

Today's war on drugs can be traced directly to the Nixon administration. In 1969, during the height of the Viet Nam war and the growing anti-war sentiment in America, Nixon declared drugs as “America's public enemy number one” and in 1970 Congress approved the Controlled Substances Act and greatly increased Federal funding of law enforcement against drugs. Both the effort and funding was ratcheted up again during the Reagan administration.

Prohibition didn't work with alcohol then and it isn't working with drugs today (nor gambling or prostitution either). The very notion of protecting citizens from themselves is nothing more that the imposition of a religious moral code on behaviors that date back to ancient times. America was founded upon a notion of freedom and individual liberty. The founding fathers envisioned a government that stayed out of the private lives of its citizens unless a citizen's action posed a danger to the welfare of his neighbor. This is why we have laws that prohibit theft, assault and murder; because such actions involve the involuntary exposure of others to harm.

Government has a right and duty to protect us from abuse by others but not to interfere in bad decision making that puts no one else at risk. I will not attempt to argue here that drug use is not potentially harmful but I do contend that in this country adults should be free to make choices that others disapprove of so long as the consequences of those decisions do not pose a direct or indirect risk to the welfare of others. The legally defensible approach is that today used in conjunction to alcohol. Intoxicants may be legally sold, possessed and used by adults but it is illegal to engage in behavior while under the influence that poses risks to others.

There is plenty of evidence to show that legal substances such as alcohol and tobacco pose at least as great a health danger as non-prescription drug use. Prohibition proved that the costs of making alcohol illegal exceeded the gains and the same is true of non-prescription drugs today. There is no credible evidence that the War on Drugs has accomplished anything other than to create the opportunity for criminals to profit greatly by trafficking. Prohibiting the sale possession and use of non-prescription drugs has merely caused the retail price of these drugs to skyrocket making them more and more attractive as a criminal enterprise.

Historical data show that law enforcement efforts have had minimal impact on drug use. Data from the Department of Health and Human Services show that nearly half of the U.S. population admits to having used an illegal drug at least once in their lifetime, that's over 112 million Americans over the age of 12. Over 35 million Americans report used an illegal drug during the last 12 months; most of those (over 25.4 million) identified the drug used as marijuana.

The same federal data show that over 198 million Americans over 12 have used alcohol in their lifetimes and nearly 172 million have tried tobacco at least once. Almost 121 million Americans drank alcohol this past month and over 70 smoked this month. The documented health risks of both tobacco and alcohol use easily exceed that of marijuana. For example, in a study of deaths in the United States during 2000 the leading cause accounting for over 18 percent of all deaths was tobacco (435,000 deaths); alcohol accounted for 3.5 percent or 85,000 deaths; illegal drug use other than marijuana 17,000 deaths; and absolutely no deaths were attributed to marijuana use. Over 30 times as many deaths were attributed to “legal” drugs alcohol and tobacco than illegal drugs.

Perhaps the most egregious cost of the War on Drugs is how much of our civil liberties have been eroded because of it. Nearly every medium to large city now operate para-military style police units that specialize in drug raids on homes. Often times the standard of evidence necessary to obtain a warrant for such a raid is nothing more than the word or an informant compelled to cooperated for his or her self-interest. Most of the techniques now used in the War on Terrorism were first developed for use in the Drug War. Warrantless searches, seizure of property upon arrest, wide-ranging wiretaps and the general erosion of the cornerstone of the American judicial system; that one is innocent until proven guilty; all the result of the War on Drugs.

The time has come for America to reexamine our approach to non-prescription drugs. Marijuana should be either legalized, regulated and taxed just like alcohol and tobacco or, at the very least, use and possession should be decriminalized. We need to take redirect law enforcement efforts away from drugs but the fear among those in law enforcement is that without the drug war it will be hard to justify the huge expenditures for law enforcement as the crime rate drops. Similarly, America's prison and jail population will plummet and should enable us to close many older prisons and jails. The money raised through taxation and/or saved could be spent on some combination of drug treatment, education and job training programs.