What we’ve been doing since the DEA was created 35 years ago has resulted in more drugs being available at lower costs. We can all agree that the “war on drugs” is an abject failure. Although one frustrated DEA agent suggested to me that what we need is Malaysian-style drug laws, most of us know that we’re never going to win this “war,” even if we start executing dealers.
(Why is “war on drugs” in quotes? Because it’s not a war. War is armed conflict between nations or states or groups within a nation or state. You can make war on a group of people [the “WoD” is arguably a war on brown people], but you can’t make war on a thing; you also can’t make war on a tactic (like terrorism) or a philosophy or an emotion. “War on drugs” is an inapt metaphor that was designed to secure the compliance of the populace.)
Even AHCL agrees that the “drug war” can never be won. But, he says, it’s “worth fighting.” AHCL points to the vignette in one of this season’s episodes of the wire in which an infant cried over the body of its mother, who had overdosed on heroin, as conveying the message “illegal drugs destroyed lives, taking its toll on the littlest of victims.”
Sometimes unwinnable fights are worth fighting. As a criminal-defense lawyer, I’ll be among the first to admit it. And many drugs are bad. Some of them are really really bad. So why not fight this quixotic battle against an unbeatable foe? Why is the “war” not worth fighting?
Because it isn’t free. Because we pay a huge and objectively unreasonable price to keep fighting the “war.” Because, in fact, the battle is doing more harm than good.
There is a direct financial cost (by some estimates, over $40 billion a year). There’s also an indirect financial cost, in potential tax revenues lost. Get rid of the war on drugs, fire half the cops and half the judges and prosecutors and half the prison guards and half the defense lawyers. Put those people to work doing something productive instead of playing the New Great Game. Tax the dope — $40 a gram, say, for cocaine — and sell it out of liquor stores. Americans consume some 500 tons of cocaine a year; that’s $20 billion that we’re giving up in tax money from cocaine alone.
There is also a societal cost: tens of thousands of young men have been killed or imprisoned, not by drugs but by the war. (When the baby was crying over its overdosed mother in the episode of the Wire that tugged at AHCL’s prohibitionist heartstrings, where was its father? In prison on drug charges? Shot down over a drug debt? Or just out working the corner?) Neighborhoods have been turned into free-fire zones not by drugs but by the war. (When was the last time you read about alcohol dealers or tobacco dealers having a shootout over territory?)
Meanwhile, America is awash in dangerous drugs. Kids are selling drugs at school, and kids are buying them. And what are the kids doing? They’re smoking some weed, but aside from that it’s mostly pills. Not illicit drugs but prescription pills — xanax, valium, vicodin — taken without a scrip. There will always be substances available to fill the human desire to escape reality. And as long as parents are using liquor and pills to escape their own realities, they’ve got no good cause to be surprised when their kids use drugs to escape their realities.
Bottom line: prohibition was a societal failure in 1933, and it’s a failure in 2008. Why it should take smart people so long to figure this out is a mystery to me.