Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Should We Rethink the War on Drugs?

Ever since President Nixon "declared war on drugs" back in 1971, the whole War on Drugs has been a highly contentious issue. Based on how the government is doing on the War on Terror and the War on Poverty, it makes me wonder whether the War on Drugs has been equally disastrous.

I know that by going over various sub-points, each one can be a blog entry of its own. I'm also sure that I am not covering every possible facet of the War on Drugs. With Colorado's ballot initiative to legalize marijuana this November, there very well could be more blog entries on this topic. However, I want to give a brief overview to see what the War on Drugs entails.

First, there is the matter of rate of drug usage itself. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), drug usage has stabilized in the developed world. Data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), the largest national survey of its kind, affirms that fact. Looking at the NSDUH's report from 2008, which was the most recent one published, provides insight. Take Table G.1 on page 242, which shows the types of illicit drugs used in the lifetime of those 12 and older. 108,255,000 people have admitted to using illicit drugs, and 94,946,000 of those people had tried marijuana. Per Table G.2 (p. 243) and G.10 (p. 251), that translates into 47% of Americans 12 and older who have tried. Obviously, the percent of those who have tried in the past year or month, which are 14.2% and 8.0% respectively, will be lower. However, the point here is that in spite of the War on Drugs, the deterrent is not as strong as one would expect; illicit drug usage is not uncommon. Just ask teenagers. According to a study done by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, it is easier for teenagers to get a hold of marijuana than beer.

The incarceration rate in America of 760 prisoners per 100,000 people is higher than any other country in the world and well above the OECD average of 140 prisoners. Drug abuse violations is one of the largest causes of arrests (FBI data) and accounts for 51% of federal inmates (Department of Justice). Why do I bother mentioning the incarceration rate? Because one of the primary causal mechanisms for its vast increase is the War on Drugs. Just think how much we would save in terms of maintaining all of these prisoners and the prisons who are charged with non-violent crimes. And don't forget how many less lives would be ruined because the individuals now have a record.

There is also the matter of unintended consequences. One of them, recently reported by the UNODC, is that on a global level, there is an significant increase of HIV and AIDS as a result. Much like with increasing the sin tax on cigarettes, another consequence is the black market. There was a time where we prohibited alcohol in this country, and did so through a constitutional amendment (i.e., the 18th). Remember how that one turned out? There were black markets and increased crime, and as a result, the 21st amendment of the Constitution repealed the 18th amendment. Instead of having Al Capone, we now have drug cartels that are not only causing issues on our own borders, but increasing crime on an international level. On top of it, cocaine has gotten cheaper over time.

We've spent over a trillion dollars on a war that cannot be won. What do we have to show for it? Drugs are easier than ever to obtain, prisons are overcrowded because we are punishing non-violent crimes in an exceedingly austere manner, and the black markets perpetuate the existence of drug cartels. If we don't use corporal punishment, what else could we do? First, we could decriminalize these drugs. Decriminalization has been a success for Portugal. It's better to keep these drugs out of the underground market. We don't see people bootlegging alcohol anymore, and that's because there isn't a prohibition on it. Plus, prohibition is an infringement on our civil liberties. After decriminalization, we should provide treatment for those who truly need it. As I pointed out already, most illicit drug usage is marijuana, a drug that wouldn't be considered any more harmful, if not less harmful, than alcohol. Backing off on the "War on Drugs" would ease the fiscal burdens on both the state and federal levels, both in terms of less enforcement and less congestion in the court system, while handling the problem of drug abuse in a more mature, responsible fashion.   

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