March 26, 2009 -- The Drug War has been in the news again this week. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed off to Mexico on Wednesday, March 25, for a two-day visit, with the escalating drug-related violence in that country at the top of her agenda. Some 8000 people have been killed in just over a year, and there are worries that the chaos is spreading from northern Mexico into some U.S. border states. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama is expected to announce his plan to overhaul Washington’s anti-narcotics policy in Afghanistan . Efforts to eradicate the Afghani poppy fields that supply 90% of the world’s heroin have failed completely. 

No one believes abusing drugs is a noble or worthwhile way to spend one’s life. But criminalizing a voluntary act is neither the prudent nor the just response. Like alcohol prohibition 80 years ago, drug prohibition today causes far more problems than it solves. Unlike alcohol prohibition, which lasted little more than a decade in the United States, drug prohibition just will not go away. The UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) met in Vienna earlier this month to set international drug policy for the next decade. Led by the United States, the Commission largely reaffirmed its current prohibitionist path.

Counting the Costs

One major reason the War on Drugs continues is that many people do not truly appreciate its hefty price tag. According to The Economist , the United States spends around $40 billion a year trying in vain to eliminate the supply of drugs. It arrests roughly 1.5 million people a year for drug offences, many of them for simple possession of marijuana. Around half a million end up serving prison time.
In addition to the direct monetary cost, there is the issue of forgone taxes, which would easily net billions more if drugs were legalized. Currently, as Bill Frezza notes in a recent Real Clear Markets column , drug users already show themselves more than willing to pay a hefty “tax”. More commonly referred to by economists as a risk premium, this “tax” results from quixotic government efforts to shut down the drug market. Prices do go up, but without much effect on consumption. More importantly, this risk premium is paid out not to government, but to criminals and terrorists at home and abroad.
The total cost in terms of lives lost and violently disrupted because of this subsidy to organized crime and terrorist groups is impossible to calculate. The chaos in Mexico has included the deaths of over 800 policemen and soldiers since Mexican President Felipe Calderon ramped up the battle against drug cartels in December 2006, says The Economist. This tears at the very social fabric in some parts of the country. And the drug trade fuels lawlessness in cities in North America and all over the world.
In Afghanistan, eradication efforts have pushed farmers into the hands of the Taliban. The White House’s presumed plan to redirect NATO’s energies toward helping farmers plant other crops will be no more effective, however. The cost of poppies makes up only a small fraction of the final street price of heroin. Drug dealers can easily double the price they pay for these inputs, making it extremely unlikely that enough farmers can be lured away from growing poppies.
The United States spends around $40 billion a year trying in vain to eliminate the supply of drugs.
The most effective way to drain inflated drug profits is to legalize drugs. Repealing current drug prohibition would strike a blow against criminals and terrorists, just as repealing alcohol prohibition struck a blow against the mob back in the 1930s. With legal market pricing, organized crime in Mexico would no longer have any reason to be involved in the drug trade, and violence would decline dramatically. In Afghanistan, deprived of inflated profits, the Taliban would lose influence over farmers, helping NATO forces to stabilize that country.
Reducing the demand for drugs is a chimera. The desire among a significant subsection of society to use mind-altering substances will never go away. Some of the drugs that are currently illegal can definitely be used responsibly, as alcohol mostly is today. Some drugs, like marijuana, even have legitimate medical applications. Addiction and abuse, when they do happen, can be dealt with as personal issues, the way we now treat alcoholism. Keeping drugs illegal in no way helps us deal with them in an adult manner. It just further infantilizes us, and erodes respect for the law. Especially among poorer neighborhoods, people rightly feel victimized by government-abetted gang violence. The only real effect of outlawing drugs is to insure that only outlaws will supply drugs.

Imposing Morality

Drug abusers make poor mascots, I realize. They are much harder to sympathize with than, say, cuddly polar bears. But we do not need to sympathize with them to realize that we have no right to decide for them what they can and cannot put into their own bodies. Even more than ignorance about the true costs of the drug war, prohibition continues because too many people want to impose their moral convictions by force of law.
My own personal experience with illegal drugs is far less extensive than that admitted to by the current Leader of the Free World. Without knowing more details, though, I cannot condemn President Obama’s drug experimentation outright. At one extreme, someone who ruins his health, his employment prospects, and his relationships by spending most of his time in a heroin-induced haze can hardly be said to be serving his own long-term happiness. On the other hand, neither does the teetotaling puritan who avoids even a glass of wine with dinner seem to me to be getting the most out of life.
At any rate, it is plainly wrong to deny an adult the right to make his own decisions about drugs. We can, however, condemn the hypocrisy of politicians like Barack Obama who would imprison people for “crimes” that they themselves have committed. This kind of hypocrisy is another reason that explains the longevity of the immoral and impractical War on Drugs.
Wherever we decide personally to draw the line between responsible drug use and irresponsible and self-destructive drug abuse, the government has no place in outlawing our decisions. If a person does not initiate the use of force against others, the government has no right to use force against him. We may of course make efforts to persuade others not to abuse drugs, to treat mind-altering substances with all the caution they deserve, and so on. But justice demands that we defend each person’s right to choose, even if we think it is the wrong choice. Justice also demands that we defend the right of voluntary exchange among adults, even if it is drugs that are being exchanged. The fact that the Drug War fails both of these tests is among the most serious of its many failings. The Obama administration is showing no signs of doing anything more than tweaking the details of drug policy. Isn’t it time we demanded an end to prohibition once and for all?
 

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