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Opening Arguments

The unwinnable war

This isn't exactly a shocking headline; it could have been written any time in the last 50 years and, come to think of it, has been, many times: The war on drugs has been a failure:

The war on drugs that has been waged in the United States for over forty years now has failed, just as our national experiment with the prohibition of alcohol failed. Drugs are still readily available and their use in the United States is no lower than, and sometimes surpasses, drug use in countries with very different approaches to the problem. Every activity related to illegal drugs has been formally criminalized in the United States and a large bureaucracy has been created. Incarceration rates are high and a massive, costly, and sustained effort has been made to keep drugs out of the United States.

How costly is this war on drugs? A good friend of mine, Nobel Laureate in Economics Gary Becker, and his colleagues estimated in 2005 that the direct costs are over $100 billion annually in police services, court time, effort spent on offenders, and imprisonment—a minimum of about $40,000 per year per prisoner. Becker notes that this estimate does not include “intangible costs, such as the destructive effects on many inner city neighborhoods, the use of the American military to fight drug lords and farmers in Colombia and other nations, or the corrupting influence of drugs on many governments.”

What's interesting is that this is George Shultz, President Reagan's Secretary of State, speaking, which is an indication of the growing skeptcism about the war on drugs in places where you once couldn't find it. In almost any other program, conservatives would be leading the pack in denouncing something that had wasted hundreds of billions of dollars with no signs of success. There are obvious reasons why they haven't viewed the war on drugs this way, and the fact that many of them are coming around now is significant.

No, I don't have the magic solution. I'm not sure how far I'd go in education and treatment -- if people want to screw up their lives that's their call. But we definitely need to at least consider a certain amount of decriminalization, along with clearly understood and always-applied punishment for abuse of drugs (the way we treat drunk driving today). Drugs aren't the problem for society -- it's what we allow people to get away with while on drugs.