Breaking!! Drug War not Working

Via the AP:  AP IMPACT: US drug war has met none of its goals.

The entire piece is worth reading, but the intro paragraph sums up the situation:

After 40 years, the United States’ war on drugs has cost $1 trillion and hundreds of thousands of lives, and for what? Drug use is rampant and violence even more brutal and widespread.

Judged on the basic criteria that the policy itself sets out, such as curtailing the amount of drugs available, as well as driving street price up to a point that users will abandon the products in question, the drug war has utterly failed.  I say this as someone who once thought the war on drugs was, at a minimum, a reasonable idea and also as one who, after studying it for some years now, can’t help but say that as a policy it is an utter and total failure that does nothing more than drain limited resources and cause havoc in its wake.  Fundamentally, Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron is quite correct when he notes:  "Current policy is not having an effect of reducing drug use, but it’s costing the public a fortune."

There are two fairly typical responses to pronouncements that the drug war has been a waste of money.

1)  We haven’t spent enough!  It is not unusual for Drug Warriors to claim that the main reason that we have not yet seen success in the Drug War is because we simply haven’t spent sufficient amounts of cash as yet.

And yet, the numbers aren’t too convincing.  Here are a few:

• $20 billion to fight the drug gangs in their home countries. In Colombia, for example, the United States spent more than $6 billion, while coca cultivation increased and trafficking moved to Mexico — and the violence along with it.

• $33 billion in marketing "Just Say No"-style messages to America’s youth and other prevention programs.High school students report the same rates of illegal drug use as they did in 1970, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says drug overdoses have "risen steadily" since the early 1970s to more than 20,000 last year.

• $49 billion for law enforcement along America’s borders to cut off the flow of illegal drugs. This year, 25 million Americans will snort, swallow, inject and smoke illicit drugs, about 10 million more than in 1970, with the bulk of those drugs imported from Mexico.

• $121 billion to arrest more than 37 million nonviolent drug offenders, about 10 million of them for possession of marijuana. Studies show that jail time tends to increase drug abuse.

• $450 billion to lock those people up in federal prisons alone. Last year, half of all federal prisoners in the U.S. were serving sentences for drug offenses.

At the same time, drug abuse is costing the nation in other ways. The Justice Department estimates the consequences of drug abuse — "an overburdened justice system, a strained health care system, lost productivity, and environmental destruction" — cost the United States $215 billion a year.

It is difficult to accept the argument that a little more cash would solve the problem.  Indeed, one of the grand ironies of the entire process is that prohibition heavily incentivizes drug trafficking by increasing price, and thereby profits.

Indeed, the number that one really needs to understand to figure out why the drug war is unwinnable is as follows:

The $320 billion annual global drug industry now accounts for 1 percent of all commerce on the planet.

The drug war isn’t a war on addicts and traffickers, it is a war on supply and demand and the basic forces of the marketplace.  And if the US’s drug fighting budgets is somewhere in the $15 billion, what chance does the policy have against a $320 billion business that can, for example, afford to lose huge amounts of product as part of the cost of doing business?

2)  Things would have been worse!  After all, if we had avoid this multi-decade policy, image what would have happened! Indeed, the piece paraphrases former drug czar, John P. Walters of the Bush administration making that case.   Of course, a major problem with that position is that it is utterly hypothetical.  But really, what else can one say if one is a Drug Warrior?  It would negate one’s work to assert that it is a failure.  Indeed, Walters is quoted saying as much in the piece:

"To say that all the things that have been done in the war on drugs haven’t made any difference is ridiculous," Walters said. "It destroys everything we’ve done. It’s saying all the people involved in law enforcment, treatment and prevention have been wasting their time. It’s saying all these people’s work is misguided."

The interesting thing about that quote is that it really isn’t a defense based on substance.  Rather, it is a defense based on the fact the intentions of the drug war are good ones and, darnit, people have worked really, really hard!

A lot more could (and no doubt, will) be said, but I will leave it at that for the moment and recommend the piece in its entirety.

FILED UNDER: General,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Franklin says:

    $33 billion in marketing “Just Say No”-style messages to America’s youth and other prevention programs.

    In general, marketing works. My opinion is that this is a good expenditure. While it’s obvious to mature adults that drugs can ruin your life, there are plenty of young impressionable minds that seriously do not understand that.

    Not to mention, reducing the number of consumers reduces the price, meaning the marketing strategy works directly opposite most of the other drug war strategies.

  2. Stan25 says:

    The best thing to do is legalize pot and tax it like booze and tobacco. That won’t happen any time soon, because the politicians use the War On Drugs as an electioneering stunt. There is also the fact that there are some politicians are in bed with the major drug cartels and they don’t want to see that easy cash dry up. Look at what happened to the alcohol bootleggers when Prohibition was repealed. People like Lucky Luciano had to go eslewhee to find an illegal buck.

  3. TangoMan says:

    I’m mostly in agreement with your argument, partly for philosophical reasons and partly for pragmatic reasons, yet I’m not completely convinced that the “it could have been worse argument” is completely invalid because I can well imagine how things could be worse.

    Fundamentally, Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron is quite correct when he notes: “Current policy is not having an effect of reducing drug use, but it’s costing the public a fortune.”

    This argument reminds me of the P.J. O’Rourke quip: “If you think health care is expensive now, wait until you see what it costs when it’s free.”

    What’s it going to cost the public when drugs use is not restricted?

    And as for the crime and the criminals, I don’t think that the dealers and enforcers who are so willing to commit murder and other violence in their line of work are simply going to become 7-11 clerks once drugs are decriminalized. They’re criminals because they like the lifestyle, the money, and the danger, so if dealing in the world of drugs doesn’t provide them with want they desire they’ll simply move into another criminal activity and expand it to be a profitable enterprise like they did with drugs over these last number of decades. Kidnapping, kidnapping boys and girls for sex rings, murder for hire, tax scams, protection rackets, all of these areas of criminal activity have waned because drugs have presented a better return and they will surge in prominence when an influx of criminals seek to develop new profit centers.

    I don’t really know what the answer is here, short of infiltrating the drug supply chain and poisoning the drugs so that most people become too scared to use them. This looks like a policy area that has no optimum solution.

  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    Legalize it. Legalize it all.

    The dealers will go exactly where the bootleggers went: into other lines of work. Many will go legit — as many speakeasy owners and bootleggers did.

    The argument that we have less kidnapping for profit because drugs are a better deal for criminals is of course moronic. By that logic we should outlaw food, create a huge black market in Cheeri-O’s and draw all the criminals into selling cereal on street corners.

    But TangoBrimelow has other motives: his sort think of drugs as a plague afflicting minorities, and of course anything that stigmatizes minorities is meat and potatoes to our resident race warrior. Tango’s channeling Don Zalucci. “In my city, we would keep the traffic in the dark people, the coloreds. They’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls.”

  5. Drew says:

    As a general proposition I am in complete agreement. Its just basic economics.

    BTW – I think the biggest cost was missed: the social malformations that have resulted from poor, inner city people who see the lucrative drug trade as the road to success. Its truley horrific what has developed.

    I do think we have to heed Franklin’s point, and also point out a hypocrisy: 1) a sensible education campaign targeted towards young people probably is warranted. But it needs to be better than some variation of ‘reefer madness,’ or just say no. However, at the end of the day it will be values – parenting – that carries, or not, the day. 2) our government is now embarking on campaigns concerning eating habits. Do we ever learn? What next? The HHS Secy on what your exercise routine will look like next week?

  6. anjin-san says:

    The war on drugs has its roots in the repeal of the Volstead Act. When all the people who were on the government payroll enforcing Prohibition realized their funding was about to go bye, bye, suddenly “Marijuana, Assassin of Youth” was born.

    Things have not changed all that much. The status quo has allowed a lot of people to earn a good living feeding at the public trough. It has had the added benefit, from a certain perspective at least, of increasing the power government wields. Another bonus is that it keeps attention off of the vast damage the legal stuff does. Tobacco is so much more destructive to users than pot that it is not really even worth discussing. Look up how many people die in this country each year from prescription drugs. Its an eye opener.

    As someone who has been clean and sober for many years, and who has seen many of his friends die or marginalize their lives with substance abuse, I can tell you that the only thing that keeps me from calling the war on drugs a joke is that it is just not funny. A huge, expensive train wreck. The war has harmed society more than the drugs have.

  7. TangoMan says:

    The argument that we have less kidnapping for profit because drugs are a better deal for criminals is of course moronic.

    Yeah, liberal promises based on reforming human behavior patterns are always so accurate. Too bad there’s no way we can hold accountable those who promise a rosy future that never materializes. Maybe liberals can set up retraining centers for the drug enforcers so that they can retrain as child care workers or elder care workers. In fact, perhaps we can mandate that liberals be forced to hire these newly trained teacher’s aides to teach in the classes attended by their children.

    If we just treat these drug enforcers with respect and show them that we value them then we can all sing kumbaya together and fart rainbows.

  8. anjin-san says:

    I don’t really know what the answer is here, short of infiltrating the drug supply chain and poisoning the drugs

    Ummm, Skippy? It is already poison. So is alcohol. Ditto for tobacco. People still use it. Geeze. A mind really is a terrible thing to waste.

    Maybe liberals can set up retraining centers for the drug enforcers so that they can retrain as child care workers or elder care workers.

    You may possibly be the stupidest person in the world. Really.

  9. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    So, Anjin. Just how many addicts do you want running around? I find the information you are clean and sober astounding. Judging by your posting here you have done some irrepairable damage mentally. There are steps you could take to help yourself. 12 of them. Take them.

  10. anjin-san says:

    Just how many addicts do you want running around?

    The percentage of people with addictive personalities does not change based on laws restricting various substances or the lack thereof. If you could wave a magic wand and make all illegal drugs vanish tomorrow, heroin & coke addicts would simply become alcohol and prescription drug addicts. In many cases, they already are poly-addicted.

    If you want to reduce addiction, make serious efforts to push back the age at which people first try drugs. Make it legal for adults. Furnish or sell to a minor and you go to prison for 5 years. No ifs, ands, or buts. Make treatment readily available. Accept the fact that a certain percentage of people will become hopeless addicts no matter what you do and work to mitigate the resultant damage to society.

    Do you really want to get into this with me? You are a few fries short of a happy meal on your good days, and this is a subject I have some actual expertise in.

  11. John Burgess says:

    You might be surprised to learn how many people are out there–including many family doctors–who are both heroin addicts and sufficiently functional to manage their jobs without complaint.

    The problem with many drugs is in obtaining them. Once your supply is put in jeopardy, then your behavior changes to ensure you have a supply, no matter what.

    I’m in favor of legalizing all drugs, though also in favor of extremely strict laws controlling sales to minors and mis-use (as in driving under the influence). Other than that, let Darwinian rules determine whether people should or should not be using the drugs of their choice, not a marketplace distorted by ineffectual laws.

  12. TangoMan says:

    If you want to reduce addiction, make serious efforts to push back the age at which people first try drugs.

    Not a bad idea even if we leave aside the research which shows that young children who are introduced to alcohol under the supervision of their parents grow up, on average, to be more responsible users of alcohol. This probably works for alcohol because it the children are taught to associate it with meals, with conversation and with strict limits, and the training carries over into their later years when they’re confronting social situations where peers are binging in order to get drunk. Most drugs are used to get high, so I kind of think that this alcohol tactic isn’t transferable. That said, what exactly are these serious efforts that work to push back the age at which people first try drugs and why aren’t we implementing them now?

    Make it legal for adults. Furnish or sell to a minor and you go to prison for 5 years. No ifs, ands, or buts.

    Aren’t liberals generally opposed to mandatory sentences with “no ifs, ands, or buts” and why don’t we do this now, I mean, why wait?

    As I noted in my first comment, I’m philosophically in support of making drugs legal for adults, but I have some practical concerns. We live in a social welfare state, so it’s quite likely that cheaper and legal drugs will result in greater market penetration and greater levels of dependency creating more social devastation, which ultimately will lead to more social interventions paid for by taxpayers. Can’t we have it so that when people are given the freedom to use drugs that if they do so irresponsibly that they bear the full consequences for their own adult-choices in this matter, and if that leads to a life of ruin or loss of life, then that’s the bargain they struck? I can’t really get behind the bargain of granting more freedom to people only until they need help and then they compel me to provide a rescue line when they’ve abused their freedom.

    Make treatment readily available.

    I’m for that. There’s nothing stopping treatment centers from proliferating right now. They’re not illegal. Treatment is currently readily available for any drug addict who wants to reform and can pay. Oh, I see, you want to stick the bill onto the taxpayers. Um, no thanks.

    Accept the fact that a certain percentage of people will become hopeless addicts no matter what you do and work to mitigate the resultant damage to society.

    I already accept human failings. I know that plenty of people think that addicts are addicts by choice, so I can support your effort to reeducate the public on the nature of addiction. I’m curious though about this effort you propose to mitigate the resultant damage to society. How exactly would that work and why not do that now?

  13. Grewgills says:

    Things would have been worse! After all, if we had avoid this multi-decade policy, image what would have happened!

    It seems that the only available evidence is to look at where soft drugs that are illegal here have been made legal or at least decriminalized. All I have seen indicates that in the long term use is stable and in some cases actually decreases a bit.
    Focus on education, make the education accurate, let the police focus on crimes with actual victims, and make room in the prisons for people whose crimes have victims.

    As an aside the worst case scenario I have seen is the marijuana eradication test in Hawaii. “Green Harvest” and its attendant helicopters and bullying tactics did successfully drive the price of marijuana in the islands upwards of $400 and ounce from less than half that and as a result the usage of heroin, crack, and ice skyrocketed. Thankfully that particular misguided policy finally ended.

  14. anjin-san says:

    Aren’t liberals generally opposed mandatory sentence

    If you have a cartoon vision of the world I suppose. If it were up to me we would take people that harm children, tie rocks to them & toss them in the bay.

    the research which shows that young children who are introduced to alcohol under the supervision of their parents grow up, on average, to be more responsible users of alcohol.

    I am sure there is some research that shows this, and there is probably research that makes opposing conclusions. It is a complex subject, and short and sweet conclusions are suspect. What is the cultural context of this research? In France and Italy, people start drinking wine in a family setting at a young age. They appear, at least on the surface, to deal with alcohol better as a society than we do. They also have higher rates of cirrhosis of the liver. And lower rates of heart disease. Like I said, it is a complex subject. One thing that does not change is that if a person has an addictive personality, they will almost certainly become addicted to something, very often drugs or alcohol, or both.

    Oh, I see, you want to stick the bill onto the taxpayers

    Actually, I want to legalize the drugs, tax them, and use some of the revenue to pay for treatment. So I guess I do want taxpayers to pay. The ones who use drugs.

    propose to mitigate the resultant damage to society

    If the price of drugs was not artificially high due to illegality, a the amount of crime that takes place to get people money to get high would go down. Just one example.

  15. anjin-san says:

    You might be surprised to learn how many people are out there–including many family doctors–who are both heroin addicts and sufficiently functional to manage their jobs without complaint.

    In the 19th century a lot of prominent citizens were functioning opium addicts.

  16. Chad says:

    Legalize all drugs, tax and regulate them. I would even go so far as to establish clinics (similar to methadone clinics) that offer heroin for free or at a reduced cost to addicts. They can come in, be under a doctor’s supervision and get their fix three times daily. The billions that are blown in locking people up for getting high can now be put into education and treatment. Look at how many have stopped smoking cigarettes over the past thirty years, simply because of education campaigns.

    I see on shows such as “The First 48” how many people have died in home invasions because of someone looking to rob them to get drug money. If drugs were legal and given away at a reduced cost or even free for those that are eligible, then those poor souls would still be alive today. The Drug War is the most ridiculous money making scam ever conceived in the minds of men. There were recently six prisons shut down in the Netherlands due to the fact that there was so little crime since drugs have become more and more tolerated there. Makes you think, huh?

  17. TangoMan says:

    Actually, I want to legalize the drugs, tax them, and use some of the revenue to pay for treatment. So I guess I do want taxpayers to pay. The ones who use drugs.

    Find a way to guarantee me that this reform can be entirely self-financing and will never fallback on the ultimate guarantor, and I mean never, and you’ll have knocked out my primary concern. You see there is a ceiling on how high the taxes can go before the illegal supply route becomes attractive. We see this already with cigarette smuggling and in some cases, booze hijackings and underground sales. This means that a proposal can’t be built on a foundation of fairy tale economic premises like ObamaCare or Medicare. Critics should be able to recognize the source of my skepticism . . . social welfare proposals never work they way they’re supposed to work.

    If the price of drugs was not artificially high due to illegality, a the amount of crime that takes place to get people money to get high would go down. Just one example.

    Yeah, I know that. I should have been more specific in my question. How will you mitigate the resultant damage to society which arises from the disruption that drugs cause to people’s lives? This goes on whether drugs are expensive or free, so crime to support a habit isn’t really the issue. Use alcohol as the model. Most people don’t have to commit crimes to get the money to buy alcohol yet booze causes all sorts of social problems. A drug legalization will create more incentive to use drugs and so we should expect more people to be driving while coked up, more people putting their babies into microwaves as they’re jacked on meth, more people wasting into cadavers as they use heroin. High price, criminal sanction and reluctance to turn to crime in order to fund drug purchases act, on the margin, as deterrents for many people. Remove these deterrents and usage will increase. Your solution is. . . what?

  18. anjin-san says:

    social welfare proposals never work they way they’re supposed to work.

    Really? “Never” is a big word, and it is indicative of simplistic thinking.

    I have a relative who is pretty severely handicapped. She lives in a handicapped only apartment complex, all of the apartments are set up for wheelchairs. The complex is a federal govt. private sector partnership. Most of the folks who live there get in-home supportive services.

    End result is they are living dignified, semi-independent lives. Some of them have jobs. Some are going to school. Without the dreaded “social welfare” many of them would have become homeless and died on the streets. I would say these programs are having exactly their intended result.

  19. TangoMan says:

    If she’s your relative, then she should be your responsibility and not fobbed off on strangers. That’s beside the point though. That remark was all that you could respond to? Should I infer that you don’t actually have solutions to the questions I asked and that’s why you chose to veer the discussion off on a tangent?

    anjin-san likely response in 3 ..2 ..1 “You’re not worthy of my A-game.”

  20. anjin-san says:

    If she’s your relative, then she should be your responsibility and not fobbed off on strangers

    You really are a jerk, you know that? My wife and I have 2 close relatives who are disabled. We have spent our retirement money and then some, taking care of them. My wife took a day off work today and spent, oh, about 14 hours on their care. I spent the morning in meetings with one’s doctors. I am lucky I have a job where I can be out of the office as long as my workload is covered.

    I am a little curious how we are supposed to earn a living if we are spending our days caring for disabled relatives. Have you every cared for someone who can’t walk? Given a sponge bath? Carried someone to the bathroom? It is a full time job, and it goes on 24/7/365. My wife and I both already have demanding jobs where we average 50 hours a week. I guess we are just lazy liberal Fu(*&(ks, right? Looking for a way onto the gravy train.

    You have no fracking clue of the sacrifices we have made. We both work like crazy and have not had a real vacation in 10 years, its just not possible to get on a plane and go off to some nice beach for 10 days. I could go on and on, but I suspects its a waste of breath. And the unlucky handicapped who don’t have the good fortune to have relatives with an income that allows them to help out… what’s your plan for them? Roll their wheelchairs out into the street and let them die?

    As*hole.

  21. anjin-san says:

    more people wasting into cadavers as they use heroin.

    Your ignorance is showing. Please explain the pharmacology of how heroin turns people into “walking cadavers”. In reality, it does no such thing. Heroin users get sick from dirty needles. From sharing needles. From ingesting street drugs cut with God knows what, and of unknown strength that makes it impossible to determine dosage. From forgoing food because the street price of heroin is artificially high because of legality. Heroin, the actual drug, is less abusive of the body than any of the other popular mind altering substances, legal or no. Its hard on the veins, thats about it. Of course, an overdose can kill you, but that is not what we are discussing here.

    In reality, a great number of the problems associated with heroin use stem from it being outlawed. Certainly not all, but a lot.

    Oh and Tango? In addition to caring for my two disabled relatives, my wife and I bought a house for my elderly mother in law, even though it meant we had to wait years to get the house we wanted for ourselves. I guess this is one more way I am “fobbing” off my family responsibilities to virtuous conservatives such as yourself.

  22. Franklin says:

    If she’s your relative, then she should be your responsibility and not fobbed off on strangers.

    Wow. I’m glad this site doesn’t have an ignore function or I would have missed that gem.