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Death to Drug Dealers? – By Cary Ichter

What is it with the Trump administration and the War on Drugs?  News Flash for Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions: The War on Drugs is not the same as the War on Terror—although the War on Drugs is probably helping to fund terrorist groups.

In April 2017, the CATO Institute released a report concluding what anyone paying attention (i.e., not Jeff Sessions) should plainly know: “[P]rohibition is not only ineffective, but counterproductive, at achieving the goals of policymakers both domestically and abroad. Given the insights from economics and the available data, we find that the domestic War on Drugs has contributed to an increase in drug overdoses and fostered and sustained the creation of powerful drug cartels. Internationally, we find that prohibition not only fails in its own right, but also actively undermines the goals of the Global War on Terror.”

Although Richard Nixon did not start the “War on Drugs,” he named it, and since the late 1960s—for over 50 years—we have been squandering resources to fight a war that has not only failed, but has proven to be unwinnable.  What is at once truly remarkable and truly shameful is that we have traveled this road before, but we refuse to see the signs or learn the lessons.

Prohibition, making the consumption and sale of alcohol illegal, became effective in January 1920. Perhaps the words “became effective” are inapt here, because Prohibition was never effective.  As the CATO study reports:

Although alcohol consumption sharply decreased at the beginning of Prohibition, it quickly rebounded. Within a few years, alcohol consumption was between 60 and 70 percent of its pre-Prohibition level. The alcohol produced under Prohibition varied greatly in potency and quality, leading to disastrous health outcomes including deaths related to alcohol poisoning and overdoses. Barred from buying legal alcohol, many former alcohol users switched to substances such as opium, cocaine, and other dangerous drugs. Criminal syndicates formed to manufacture and distribute illegal liquors, crime increased, and corruption flourished.

Sound familiar? That is not my idea of an “effective” public policy, and yet we have apparently learned nothing.

H.L. Menken reported in 1925 that “Prohibition has not only failed in its promises but actually created additional serious and disturbing social problems throughout society.  There is not less drunkenness in the Republic but more.  There is not less crime, but more . . .  The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater.  Respect for the law has not increased, but diminished.”

The Cato study reported that “The monetary cost of U.S. domestic drug policy is equally remarkable. Since the War on Drugs began more than 40 years ago, the U.S. government has spent more than $1 trillion on interdiction policies. Spending on the war continues to cost U.S. taxpayers more than $51 billion annually.”  And what benefits does the society get from that spending?  The Cato report continued: “The U.S. War on Drugs, like the ill-fated war on alcohol of the early 20th century, is a prime example of disastrous policy, naked self-interest, and repeated ignorance on the part of elected officials and other policymakers. From its inception, the drug war has repeatedly led to waste, fraud, corruption, violence, and death. With many states moving toward legalization or decriminalization of some substances, and other nations moving to legalize drugs altogether, rethinking America’s drug policy is long overdue.”

Doubling down on a failed and unwise policy is simply equal parts stubborn and stupid.

And why do we do this? Well, of course, to enhance public safety and improve people’s lives because drugs are bad for you. And as we all know, nothing improves public health and well-being like throwing people in jail and giving them a felony record.

Next time you are in a large crowd, note how many people are smoking.  Very few I bet. Why?  Because public education regarding the health effects have been effective.  If we were to take the money currently waste on interdiction, enforcement, prosecution, and incarceration and were to spend it on education and intervention and if were to have the government tax the sale of that which it currently prohibits, the positive outcomes would be enormous. Consumption would actually decrease as it has in many places where legalization has occurred. Resources could be focused on the areas of real need, like the opioid crisis, and Government could get out of the business of ruining people’s lives based on moral judgments concerning what people can do with their own bodies.  And Jeff Sessions could stop worrying about marijuana consumption and start worrying about more important thing, like the imminent Doritos shortage.

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