Skip to content

Good Politics, Bad Policy: Our Disastrous War on Drugs

Recently Mexico’s largest newspaper El Universal declared the global War on Drugs un fracaso total–a total failure. Well, I guess they should know: America’s forty-plus-year tough-love drug enforcement strategy, and Mexico’s willingness to be co-opted into putting the screws to the drug cartels, has resulted in the murder of 120,000 people and the disappearance of another 25,000 from Mexico, just since 2006. That’s much more than the number of combatant casualties in the decades-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

Meanwhile, not only are drugs both cheaper and more potent than they have ever been in the U.S., the overall rate of drug use has remained essentially unchanged since Nixon’s War on Drugs began in 1971, despite taxpayers having spent more than a trillion dollars on the effort so far.

The greatest tragedy of all is that we should have known better.

During the time of alcohol prohibition in the U.S. (1920-1933), drinkers didn’t stop drinking because alcohol was illegal. They just bought their alcohol from different sources. Bootleggers and gangsters like Al Capone saw the profit to be made in black market alcohol, and took advantage of an enormous untaxed business opportunity provided by Prohibition. Violent clashes between rival gangs vying for territory, and between the police and these gangs, turned into a low-grade, asymmetrical war, in which thousands of lives were lost. Not surprisingly, the homicide rate increased drastically during Prohibition, and fell drastically after it was repealed. Equally important is the fact that alcohol use increased during Prohibition. (I suspect that all this was not exactly what the government had in mind.)

Perhaps Hegel was right when he said, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”

Nixon’s War on Drugs was a brilliant political move; it not only resulted in his landslide reelection in 1972, but also─and unfortunately─led to many other international leaders emulating his “tough on drugs” strategy, both because it was politically popular among socially conservative voters during the cultural upheavals of the 1970s, and because of the geopolitical arm-twisting of the United States. All too often, bad public policy is good politics.

Currently the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world—far exceeding both Russia and China—and the majority of federal inmates are imprisoned for non-violent, drug-related charges. The social cost to otherwise law abiding and productive citizens jailed for recreational drug use is immeasurable—families separated, casual drug users branded with the scarlet letter of felons, lost jobs, lost lives.

Meanwhile, in other countries like Portugal, which have abolished all criminal penalties for personal drug possession, drug use by teenagers has declined, the rate of HIV infection among drug users has dropped, deaths related to heroin and similar drugs have been cut by more than half, and the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction has doubled. A 2008 World Health Organization study found that the United States had the highest level of illegal drug use of all countries surveyed, far exceeding levels of drug use in countries with liberal drug policies such as the Netherlands and Portugal, among others.

What gives? The answer to the question of why the U.S. hasn’t abandoned this costly canard comes in the form of a powerful trifecta—money, propaganda, and counter-intuitive thinking.

First: once the government establishes a multitude of federal and state agencies to accomplish a mission with billions of dollars of funding, creating thousands of well-paying jobs, how do you tell them that the War isn’t working and they are no longer needed? If you want to keep your political office at the municipal, state, or federal level, you don’t. Second: because we have for so long been bombarded with the anti-drug propaganda on the evils of drug abuse, it has become a part of our collective mental furniture, and politicians who advocate drug liberalization soon discover that it is the true third rail of American politics. The third reason that U.S. federal drug policy has not been liberalized is that asserting fewer drug laws will not result in more drug users is a deeply counterintuitive thought. Yet when examining data from other countries, as well as exploring the evidence from our own history, we find that it is undeniably true.

It is encouraging, however, that there is a rising tide of experimentation at the state level. Many are liberalizing their drug laws, particularly with respect to marijuana. And now, according to a December 2 piece on the Huffington Post, even the Texas legislature is considering drug reforms. Hell is freezing over. Thank god.