The War on Drugs
Adam Kokesh, Adam vs the Man: What do you have to say to Law Enforcement Against Prohibition [LEAP] who would say that ending the War on Drugs would lower the rate of deaths of law enforcement officers unnecessarily in the line of duty?
Eric Holder, Attorney General of the United States: I don’t think that’s right.
The logic of the War on Drugs died at birth. Prohibition has never even begun to achieve its stated objectives. How could it? As the astute Pat Buchanan puts it, “There are two sure ways to end this war swiftly: Milton’s way and Mao’s way. Mao Zedong’s communists killed users and suppliers alike, as social parasites. Milton Friedman’s way is to decriminalize drugs and call off the war.” Governments around the world have tried a watered-down, somewhat less totalitarian version of Mao’s way, but they are not achieving his results. What results are they achieving instead?
(I have written extensively on the War on Drugs elsewhere. Find my historical analysis of it here.)
Does the criminalisation of drugs help drug users? Why not ask the millions who have been jailed, some for 20 years or more, whose families have been torn apart, because they disagreed with the government’s laws? Joanne Page of the Fortune Society says this is “not a war on drugs; it’s a war on poor people with drug involvement. And the casualties are terrible.”
$1t has been spent enforcing drug laws, with no resulting decrease in drug use. 40m people have been arrested on drug charges since Nixon declared war on drugs 40 years ago. And over 50% of people in overburdened jails in the US are there on drug charges. And yet, in the words of Neill Franklin, executive director of LEAP, “drugs today are more available, more potent and cheaper than ever.” In 2009, the US federal government spent over $2b housing drug-related prisoners. Every 19 seconds, someone in the US is arrested for a drug law violation, 82% of which are for possession. (One estimate asserts that 800,000 a year are arrested on marijuana-related charges alone!) In other words, you are paying so that the government can lock up people with things in their pocket that will never harm you or your children.
Despite the irriting 10th amendment, the US federal government does not recognise all laws passed by states. One type of them is their drug laws. Most states have either legalised medical marijuana or hemp or otherwise decriminalised sale of the plant. The Drug Enforcement Administration regularly raids medical marijuana dispensaries in states that have passed laws legalising them. (See here, here, here, here, here, here, here…you know what? Just google it.) Along with the product, it takes the computers and collects the files of people who have bought pot there, apparently holding them so they know who needs to get nabbed next for something they are legally allowed to do. Is it any wonder more and more people are coming to see that the government does not have to care about us? That our safety is the last thing on their mind? That the rule of law lies in tatters? And that this is not what Jesus had in mind? We have a federal government interested in prolonging this devastating war on non violent (and some terminally-ill) people with a middle finger to the constitution. How can this take place in a free society?
Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates that legalising all drugs would bring in some $40b in tax revenues at all levels if the drugs were taxed at rates similar to alcohol, and we would save another $40b in incarceration and court costs. But as he points out, this might not make much of a dent in the colossal US government budget deficits; and the real reason to legalise drugs is that “all the people who want to use drugs are being somewhere between mildly inconvenienced and grossly harmed by the policy of prohibition. We are not helping drug users in any way, shape or form.”*
Would drug use skyrocket if drugs were legal? Well, why don’t you do heroin? Because it is illegal? (For that matter, why don’t you kill and rape? Because they are illegal?) When the government tells you what you can and cannot put in your own body, it is claiming ownership over you. Protecting you from yourself is not only a misguided idea, because you know better than any government could about what is right for you, but it is demonstrably false. The government would need to destroy all guns, cigarettes, alcohol, pharmaceuticals, cars, Coca Cola and Big Macs if it wanted to keep you healthy. Maybe it should ban all those things. But in the words of Lev Timofeev, a former Soviet mathematician and analyst of the shadow economy,
Prohibiting a market does not mean destroying it. Prohibiting a market means placing a prohibited but dynamically developing market under the total control of criminal corporations. Moreover, prohibiting a market means enriching the criminal world with hundreds of billions of dollars by giving criminals a wide access to public goods which will be routed by addicts into the drug traders’ pockets. Prohibiting a market means giving the criminal corporations opportunities and resources for exerting a guiding and controlling influence over whole societies and nations. [Find more on the effects of prohibition here.]
Mexico is the newest of those nations. In his book the Lucifer Effect, psychologist Philip Zimbardo explains that our actions and our character depend to a great extent on our situation. If we are placed in a situation where we have power over others, we will probably use that power. Drug lords like Pablo Escobar were not necessarily bad people before they took to drugs. But they saw big opportunities to make big money because of the laws that existed. They needed to protect themselves against the long arm of the law, so they started their own militias, and criminalisation became a war. If there is no possibility to engage in commerce through voluntary transactions, but the demand still exists, the trade will continue but it will become dangerous. That is true of any criminal enterprise in the world. As a result, some 40,000 people have been killed in Mexico since 2006, not to mention Colombia, Peru and elsewhere in the past 40 years.
The US government has made things worse and killed its own agents. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) sold some 30,000 guns to Mexican drug lords that were used not only to kill innocent Mexican civilians, but eventually US government agents. (See a video that brings the war to your eyes here.) Thousands of Mexicans have protested the War on Drugs, which is fast becoming a civil war brought about by powerful governments that do not have to listen to their people.
Since the War on Drugs guarantees high prices for any illegal drug, it is no wonder poppy farming has become so common in Afghanistan. Supply is in the east but demand is in the west. When the west criminalises drugs, farmers in the east stand to profit. The Taliban now it encourages poppy farming as a way to make money to kill foreign soldiers. Corruption is rampant in Afghanistan. It is the most corrupt country in the world, in fact, according to Transparency International, which said the following: “In poll after poll, Afghans don’t rank the Taliban, terrorism or the economy as their highest worry. Corruption is their top concern and tackling it, their main need.” Not only does government enable high drug prices through prohibition, corruption would not exist without a government because no one would have the power to force people to pay bribes. Not only does the US military now target drug traffickers as part of this ill-conceived war, how is the ISAF supposed to win hearts and minds when its main partner sprays crops in Afghanistan and destroys farmers’ livelihoods? The criminalisation of drugs by the powers that are supposedly at war with the Taliban is shooting oneself in the head to cure one’s headache.
Back on the domestic front, the War on Drugs places huge burdens on the legal system. The backlog of drug cases that divert billions of dollars from the protection of property, the use of expensive courts and trial lawyers to prosecute people for selling a few dollars’ worth of cocaine, the loss of civil liberties, the corruption of law enforcement; these are corollaries of a legalistic approach to prohibiting drug use. Neill Franklin of LEAP explains that most police officers that prosecute the War on Drugs consider themselves soldiers, given orders, expected to uphold the law. But they do not usually spend the time to look at the facts of this pointless war, and as such do not question the criminalisation of drugs. More and more police officers are killed in the line of duty in the US, and you can guess what laws most of them are trying to uphold when they are killed. And yet, because of the law, because the politicians in the back pockets of the pressure groups are in charge, because we put them in charge and then turn our backs to them, the police are under pressure actually to put themselves in harm’s way. LEAP is made up of brave police officers who defy their political masters and stand up for what is right.
With all these obvious reasons to end the War on Drugs, why does it continue? Does the government care about your health? Is that the reason drugs are illegal? The reason the War on Drugs is so difficult to end is that the government is beholden to—even controlled by—special interest groups. Contrary to what some democrats seem to think, presidents and congresspeople do not wake up in the morning asking what they can do for their country or their constituents. They ask what they can do for their patrons, the lobbyists. Who do you think might benefit from the criminalisation of drugs? Certainly not those looking for treatment. Many laws give rise to new pressure groups. The drug laws have their own. Let’s meet some of them.
Illegal drugs are major competition for legal ones. Tobacco and alcohol companies have no interest in seeing any more drugs on the market. Perhaps that is why they were, for a while, the top funders of Partnership for a Drug Free America. (Now, big pharma contributes the most to Partnership.) Partnership tends not to mention that more than 400,000 people die every year in the US from smoking, 75,000 from alcohol and some 370,000 died from FDA-approved (thank God the government protects us from the market) pharmaceuticals in the past decade (or possibly even more), while the number who have died from marijuana is zero. The government is under pressure from the mighty tobacco and alcohol firms not to legalise their competitors, and has no qualms about killing to keep them happy. If you have ever wondered why lobbyists are so powerful, consider that 80% of those employed as lobbyists by the beer, wine and liquor industry, and 78% of tobacco lobbyists, are former government employees.
Pharmaceutical companies, too, have no interest in letting any other drugs than their own become mainstream. They already face considerable competition from alcohol and tobacco. Their drugs are so high priced (because they can be) that theft from pharmacies is skyrocketing. No less than the pharmaceutical firms, everyone from clothing manufacturers to paper companies would face steep competition from hemp if it entered the marketplace. But we must protect the public from the stalk of the cannabis plant.
Another reason drugs are still illegal, and one reason the War on Drugs is prosecuted so harshly, is that it pays for a politician to look tough on crime. Crime is only crime because lawmakers say it is, and as such, the more laws there are, the more chances politicians get to look like people who get results. It is the same reason money to protect against terrorism flows like water: the more of your money they spend, the more ability politicians have to appear to be doing something.
Other politicians preside over constituencies that benefit from the prison-industrial complex. With the steady expansion in the number of prisons came the increased number of correctional facility corporations and jobs that rely on them. The special interests driving the increased prison population are one reason why privatisation without a reduction in government power to reward the new industry might not be a good idea. Judge Jim Gray calls the prison guard union California’s strongest lobby group. It oversaw the building of 21 new prisons in the state and encouraged tough new laws (such as the 1994 “three strikes” law) that today have California’s prisons brimming over at almost twice capacity. No wonder they have an interest in full prisons: the average guard makes more than $70,000 a year.
Not all lobby groups are in the private sector. The drug war grants police and prosecutors bigger budgets, which gives them greater power vis-à-vis the public whose money they are spending. The DEA and the ATF receive ever-bigger budgets as well, enabling them to buy cool new equipment to help them do a job they should not be doing in the first place. As their budgets increase, the profits to be made off drugs and the desperation of the groups selling them, the ones created by drug prohibition, increases proportionally, so more people will fight on either side, catching thousands of innocents in the crossfire.
The police have the incentive to steal. In 1970, Congress enacted the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, also known as the Forfeiture Act. It was expanded in 1978, and then again in 1984. According to Jarrett B. Wollstein, “[c]ivil asset forfeiture is based upon the medieval doctrine that when property is involved in a crime, the property becomes ‘guilty’, and can be “arrested” and forfeited, regardless of the guilt or innocence of the property’s owners.” You do not need to be tried or convicted. Thousands of people other than the police have made money informing on their neighbours, even when their neighbours have been found innocent. And anything is fair game. Even the car you drove to try to buy drugs can be seized when you get arrested for it. The court makes money off the fine you have to pay; the police keep the car. Not surprisingly, “the level of seizure activity has exploded since 1984,” says Prof. Bruce Benson of Florida State University. Police can seize cars, jewelry and all the money they can find (even if they only say they suspect it is connected to drugs). Many local police drug units are partially or wholly funded by the assets they seize. And since it is easier to catch the little fish than the big fish, the petty criminals, like buyers and sellers, are the ones who lose most.
The military, too, long involved in South America, has its hand out, too. The long-running turmoil in Colombia has given the US military a pretext to plant military bases there. Protecting its citizens is a great excuse for a government to go to war. The empire thanks you for your understanding.
Finally, just like in so many government-connected corporate scandals, the banks are here too. Money laundering is big business, and banks all over the world have cashed in. (See here, here and here.) Governments could regulate the business, but why would they harass their close friends? All of these groups would lose if drugs were legalised, or if the drug war were won.
Make no mistake: the War on Drugs is not simply a failed policy: it is an understandable, even predictable, result of statism. It started in 1970 when a politician (Richard Nixon) wanted to squash his peaceful enemies (hippies) and distract from his foreign policy agenda (the bombing of Laos and Cambodia), and has accelerated thanks to every other politician who has stood to gain from it. In the end, the War on Drugs is a symptom of big government. Big government is the reason your tax dollars are going toward killing and jailing people for victimless crimes, creating and funding drug cartels, and bringing violence to the streets of your hometown. Big government requires a steady flow of votes and campaign contributions in return for rewarding special interest groups with tax dollars. As such, it will not reverse until enough people threaten to withhold their votes for the party that does not end the drug war. However, the reality of the criminalisation of drugs has not hit most people, and will not unless they understand it.
No more excuses
Not only us crazy anarchists understand the logic against prohibition. The Global Commission on Drug Policy reported that “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world…billions of dollars are wasted on ineffective programs,…millions of citizens are sent to prison unnecessarily,… [and] hundreds of thousands of people die from preventable overdoses and diseases.” The report was endorsed by Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, César Gaviria of Colombia, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico—and 16 other notable names, including former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, former NATO Secretary General Javier Solana, Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson. Some of these thinkers have said they are not strictly in favour of the outright legalisation of drugs. Fine. Adopt half measures and you will get half results. Alternatively, we could commit to the full legalisation of drugs and stop having to worry about all this nonsense.
I heard someone say that legalising drugs would not make a difference to the gangs because then they would engage in different activities to survive. But that ignores the fact that the economic incentive of gang membership is the very lucrative drug trade itself. If gangs switched to, say, stealing cars, they would be running far greater risks than running drugs for less money, and their membership would shrivel. Until that happens, expect many more dead everywhere. The most dangerous, most addictive drug is not crack or heroin but laws that create black markets and reward special interests.
It is also said that only the less harmful drugs, like marijuana, should be legal, because legalisation amounts to sanction. But that argument misses the point. All drugs should be legal for two reasons. First, on a purely cost-benefit analysis, there is every reason to believe that legalisation would save money and lives, including through overdose. It would drastically reduce the influence of criminal organisations around the world, reduce the corruption of law enforcement and politicians, reduce harm done by unregulated black market substitutes for drugs whose harm has much to do with their illicit nature, stop tearing families and lives apart, and reduce the incidence of police destruction of property through break ins.
But an even better reason is that no one has the right to tell you what you can and cannot put in your body when the consumption of that substance does not affect anyone else. Our bodies are our property, and no one can take away a free man’s property. Unless we are irresponsible children with no judgment, all drugs should be legal.
*Moreover, as economist Walter Block points out (and I second), giving more money to the government would not be a good thing. “It is sometimes argued that one of the benefits of legalising addictive drugs is that they could be taxed, and the government revenues enhanced,” he says. “From this perspective, this would be the only valid case against legalisation.” How about we legalise drugs and do not tax them?