The Failures of the ‘War on Drugs’

I would like to congratulate drugs… for winning the war on drugs. Ever since its declaration by Richard Nixon in 1971, a vicious cycle has been repeating itself. Police arrest one dealer, another takes his place. One kilo of cocaine is seized, one hundred more flood the streets. Nothing has changed. Drugs were a problem then; they are a problem now. Drugs even manage to infiltrate prisons, some of the world’s most heavily guarded buildings. If they can do even that, it is naïve to assume that they could be kept out of an entire country, state, or even out of a single city or town. It seems that no matter how much money governments the world over pour into fighting the war on drugs, no matter how many task forces are made, no matter how much new equipment is bought, how many heroin smugglers are arrested or pot-smoking teenagers are yelled at to care for their future, drugs find a way. There is no question about it: drugs have won this war. It is time to consider a new approach.

Most drugs are perfectly capable of destroying one’s life. This should go without saying. The suffering caused by drug addiction and its aftermath is known to everyone. The stories of those whose life was perfectly on track and is then derailed completely by one bad decision are truly horrific. But are the lives of so many users destroyed only by their substance of choice, or are there other factors at play here? When people are gunned down in the street due to cartel rivalries, is that the fault of the substances themselves, or of how we handle them? After all, there are plenty examples of all the world’s demonized substances being used for good, ranging from heroin’s usage as a painkiller after surgery to amphetamine’s help in treating ADHD.

Let us examine this from another perspective: alcohol. Alcohol shares many properties with the class of substances we label “drugs,” in fact, it is not all too difficult to make the argument that it is equally or more harmful than some of the world’s most demonized compounds such as heroin or cocaine. While the exact ranking of the world’s most dangerous recreational substances is debatable, since alcohol is basically equivalent to most (but not all) illicit narcotics in its addictive nature and physical harm potential, examining how governments treat alcohol can teach us a lot about how we should handle other drugs. Consider the following hypothetical and let us see what would happen if we treated alcohol the same way we treat other, similar compounds. Criminalizing it, putting those who are addicted into prisons, making the negative consequences of consuming it so great as to prevent anyone from touching the stuff again, ever.

First, the impact it would have on reducing alcohol consumption is disputed, but what can be said with certainty is that the potency of the alcohol being consumed would increase by an order of magnitude. The reason for this is fairly simple. If alcohol is made illegal, the demand for it would not magically cease just because the US government says it is no longer to be consumed. Now put yourself in the shoes of someone in the new profession of alcohol dealer. If you are transporting alcohol illegally, do you transport whiskey or beer? Well, whiskey, of course. You might be able to get a hundred people drunk off a truckload of beer, but you can get a thousand drunk off a truckload of whiskey. You can sell less alcohol to more people with the same result, which means more money for you. This thinking would lead to beverages with a high alcohol-percentage being favored by smugglers over those with a low one. Drinkers would be given only one option: the strong stuff. This, of course, would lead to more overdoses, and more dependency, due to a higher potency.

Second, there would be an enormous increase in violence. In the criminal underworld that alcohol would now be a part of there is no rule of law, so if a smuggler had a competitor there would be nothing stopping him from keeping his place in the market by using violence. If a theoretical alcohol bootlegger does not participate in said violence, he would go under, because those who did could just kill or maim him. Since there is no such thing as a court or due process in the criminal underworld, the only way to enforce rules and keep control is through violence. It then follows, that if alcohol were made illegal, dealers would resort to resolving their conflicts with guns, rather than with the tool alcohol companies currently use, the courts.

Third, while it would prevent some from drinking alcohol in the first place, it would have disastrous effects on those who already have a problem with it. Alcoholics, who are already seen as scum, as the bottom of society, would also have the police to contend with. This, alone, would be enough to drive any alcoholic to drink, but there is more. When the addict’s substance of choice is illegal, it is nearly impossible to get a job due to a potentially irregular supply (causing periodic withdrawal), as well as drug testing preventing the addict from keeping a job if he could get one. Thus, without a job (or, for a lot of addicts, a home) he is forced to commit heinous acts ranging from petty crimes to grand theft and assault, in order to get his fix, which is now far more expensive, due to the extremely tedious process of producing and transporting alcohol in secret.

Except, this is not just a hypothetical. All of the above happened during prohibition in the United States.Beginning in 1920 alcohol was prohibited with the intention of reducing crime and corruption and solving social problems, but by 1933 a combination of all of the above and a need for more tax revenue due to the Depression led to the end of criminalization of alcohol. And lo and behold, the potency of drink, the violence of bootlegging and the kicking-down of addicts ceased the day alcohol was legalized. This is not to say that the problems associated with alcohol stopped then and there. Quite the contrary, to this day there is a dangerous normalization and acceptance of the culture surrounding alcohol and its effects. Drunkenness in public, alcoholism at home and many other negatives still permeate alcohol consumption throughout the world. But when was the last time the CEO of Anheuser-Busch ordered a drive-by on the Heineken headquarters? Today, the potency of alcohol is written right there on the bottle, and no alcohol company is cutting its product with dangerous chemicals. There are groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous who offer help to addicts, rather than imprisoning them. If negative consequences were enough to prevent addiction there would not be a single addict in the entire world. And yet our only approach has been to increase the negatives more and more, hoping that some point exists where it will work. If this point existed, we would have already found it.

The logical next step seems to be legalizing, or at least decriminalizing all remaining drugs, right? Would that mean that next to the aisle with all the alcohol at a store, you would find one with a rich selection of drugs from psilocybin mushrooms to heroin? Probably not. Countries such as Portugal and Switzerland have set an example with their approach. Portugal, by decriminalizing the possession of all formerly illicit narcotics, with spectacular effect. Overdoses, HIV transmissions, overall consumption and addiction all fell dramatically after the policy was enacted in 2001. Switzerland, by taking a more proactive approach, setting up safe injection rooms and even providing medically pure heroin for its addicts, ensuring that the dosage is proper and that it is not cut with anything. The effect in Switzerland, too, was astounding. Especially the surprising decision of those utilizing the program to gradually decrease their dose, without being forced to do so, and eventually get completely clean, was surprising. Of course, all of these things being government-run means they are embroiled in bureaucracy and are painfully slow, but they are moving in the right direction.

But perhaps the most fundamental argument against the criminalization of narcotics is that no government has the right to determine what an individual can or cannot do with his or her own body. So long as the only harm being done is to oneself, there is no reason for anyone to interfere. By all accounts, drug consumption – by itself – is a victimless crime. Why should that be punished?

Robert Kennedy is a former research intern at the Austrian Economics Center.