Christian Guy says there is no war on drugs. Perhaps he’s not familiar with a little country called the United States of America. Over the past 40 years, it has spent more than $1trn fighting its ‘war on drugs’. It currently has more than half a million people behind bars for drug offences (up 1100 percent since 1980), and is making nearly two million more drug arrests every year (up more than 300 percent in the last 25 years).
I guess he’s not familiar with Mexico either. Since President Felipe Calderon launched his own drug war in 2006, 45,000 people have been killed. On present trends, Mexico’s war on drugs will claim 55,000 lives by the time Calderon leaves office in 2012. That’s greater than the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam War, in a country with not much more than one-third of the USA’s population. And just look at what has happened to Mexico’s murder rate since the army were first deployed (graph from Cato-at-Liberty):
Human Rights Watch has also suggested that the Mexican security forces have participated in ‘more than 170 cases of torture, 39 “disappearances,” and 24 extrajudicial killings since Calderón took office’, which represents a terrible regression in a country that had been making significant progress on human rights. If this isn’t a dirty, vicious drug war, I don’t know what would be.
And what have been the results? In the US, the use, misuse and abuse of drugs is as prevalent as ever. In Mexico, significantly less marijuana and heroin is being seized than ten years ago. And while it is possible that a little less cocaine is making its way through the country, that isn’t being reflected in higher street prices in the US. On the other hand, black Americans are 10 times more likely to be incarcerated than white Americans, and Mexico’s economically vital reputation as a tourist destination is being systematically trashed. Did somebody mention the law of unintended consequences?
These are just some of the specifics which make me regard Christian Guy’s suggestions that we need to “start planning and co-ordinating a proper fight” and that “our law enforcement strategy should be intensified” as dangerous and wrong. But it is easy to construct a general case against drug prohibition too.
Firstly, it hands control of a trade worth tens of billions each year to criminals. The more you try to stamp that trade out, the higher the ‘illegality premium’ on drugs rises, and the more violent the cartels battling to control that trade become. This is precisely what happened with alcohol when American banned it in 1919. Repealing that prohibition replaced Al Capone with Anheuser-Busch. The same thing would happen if we ended the drug war.
Secondly, that illegality premium – which some people put at 90 percent of the street price of drugs – is what drives drug addicts to crime to support their habits. The comparison with alcohol is instructive: how many alcoholics would rob you because they can’t otherwise afford another can of Special Brew?
Thirdly, prohibition makes drugs more dangerous. Drugs become stronger and more concentrated because illegality forces traffickers to pack as much potency into a given volume as possible. So heroin replaces opium, crack replaces powdered cocaine, and new synthetic drugs like Crystal Meth emerge on the market. And drugs are ‘cut’ with all manner of other substances so that dealers can maximise their profits. Being illegal, drugs are not branded or labelled. So users don’t know what strength or purity they’re getting, and overdoses and poisonings are the result. Again, the exact same thing happened with alcohol – America went from drinking beer to drinking adulterated whisky, and as a result 50,000 people died from poisoning in the first seven years of prohibition.
Ultimately, it is hard to think of any contemporary policy which has failed so thoroughly and catastrophically as the war on drugs, and at such great human cost. This war – and please, let’s not fool ourselves by pretending that no such war has been fought – has failed to reduce drug use, has made drugs more dangerous, has unnecessarily criminalized millions of people, has sunk countless poor communities into violence and degradation, and has pushed whole countries to the verge of civil war.
The rational, moral, social, and economic case for ending the war on drugs is overwhelming. Drugs should be legalized. They should be legalized globally. And they should be legalized now.