The futility of the “war on drugs”

December 13, 2007 | By | 3 Replies More

If you would like to review the sad details of this lost “war,” visit Rolling Stone’s recent article, “How America Lost the War on Drugs.”

Thanks to new research, U.S. policy-makers knew with increasing certainty what would work and what wouldn’t. The tragedy of the War on Drugs is that this knowledge hasn’t been heeded. We continue to treat marijuana as a major threat to public health, even though we know it isn’t. We continue to lock up generations of teenage drug dealers, even though we know imprisonment does little to reduce the amount of drugs sold on the street. And we continue to spend billions to fight drugs abroad, even though we know that military efforts are an ineffective way to cut the supply of narcotics in America or raise the price.

All told, the United States has spent an estimated $500 billion to fight drugs – with very little to show for it. Cocaine is now as cheap as it was when Escobar died and more heavily used. Methamphetamine, barely a presence in 1993, is now used by 1.5 million Americans and may be more addictive than crack. We have nearly 500,000 people behind bars for drug crimes – a twelvefold increase since 1980 – with no discernible effect on the drug traffic. Virtually the only success the government can claim is the decline in the number of Americans who smoke marijuana – and even on that count, it is not clear that federal prevention programs are responsible. In the course of fighting this war, we have allowed our military to become pawns in a civil war in Colombia and our drug agents to be used by the cartels for their own ends. Those we are paying to wage the drug war have been accused of ­human-rights abuses in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. In Mexico, we are now ­repeating many of the same mistakes we have made in the Andes.


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Category: Health, law and order, War

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    It is a theory that has long been pushed by criminal justice advocates and liberal politicians — that some felons, particularly those convicted of minor drug offenses, would be better served by treatment, parole or early release for good behavior. But the states' conversion to that view has less to do with a change of heart on crime than with stark fiscal realities. At a time of shrinking resources, prisons are eating up an increasing share of many state budgets.

    "It's the fiscal stuff that's driving it," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based group that advocates for more lenient sentencing. "Do you want to build prisons or do you want to build colleges? If you're a governor, it's kind of come to that choice right now."

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    I would have thought that the utter failure of incarceration to dent the drug problem in America would have, by now, convincinced law inforcement types that rehab is a better solution. Unfortunately, the "war on drugs" suffers from the same short-sighted thinking as so many other problems in America (teen pregnancy, the "war on terrorism," gun crime, etc.): the mistaken belief that punishment alone will fix every problem. It doesn't matter that the data shows abstinence-only sex ed, the Iraq occupation, the threat of prison, etc., to all be failures, what matters is that believers in "law and order" have the political clout to shove their failed solutions onto everyone else.

  3. Edgar Montrose says:

    grumpypilgrim: "the mistaken belief that punishment alone will fix every problem"

    I have two different replies to this statement.

    First, it is not a mistaken belief. Punishment WILL fix every problem, but only if the punishment is so severe as to be draconian. For example, make drug use punishible by death, and you won't completely eliminate drug use, but you will eliminate recidivism. Looking at the situation from this point of view, the problem is not the punishment, the problem is that the punishment is inadequate. I'm not advocating this, I'm just saying that it works.

    Second, I think that it's not so much a belief that punishment will fix every problem. The mistake in logic is deeper than that. The mistake is the presumption that the cure that seems to make logical sense WILL work. Proponents become so completely convinced that their solution will work that evidence to the contrary is either ignored or is met with redoubled effort put into the failing solution. Like trying to put out a fire with gasoline, this added effort actually makes the situation worse. But proponents, incapable of even considering that there might be something wrong with their perfect solution, just keep adding fuel to the fire.

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