Is it Time to Rethink the War on Drugs?

Photo: Giuseppe Bognanni

Sometimes the United States finds itself in wars that it cannot win. And the worst part about it, we don’t lose either. What can possibly be worse than losing a war? If they go on indefinitely. Well here is one war that has been going on for 40 years with no end in sight: the war on drugs.

School initiatives began 40 years ago to educate children about the dangers of drugs and to “just say no”. I don’t think anyone can argue against trying to keep drugs away from children. But that doesn’t mean it is effective – since 1970 there has been a 0% change in high school drug use.

Any new ideas or are we just going to keep plugging away and hope it eventually works? I can’t help but think of Albert Einstein’s quote, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” I hate to break it to you, but 40 years = over and over.

Russ Jones is a retired narc who has spent over 30 years on the front line of the war – he should know better than almost anyone how we are doing. And he believes it is time to call it off!

“The U.S. over the last four decades has spent $1 trillion of our tax dollars, made 38 million nonviolent drug arrests and quadrupled our prison population,” Jones said. “And the rate of addiction today, 1.3 percent, is the same as it was in 1970, when we started.”

Isn’t it a good thing that there have been 38 million arrests? Isn’t that progress? Well, not really! Do you think all the addicts that bought from that dealer are just going to stop using and start going to church on Sundays? Nope. The next drug dealer slides right in and business keeps humming.

“When I arrested a rapist or a robber, the community was safer,” Jones said. “When I arrested a drug dealer, all I did was create a job opening.”

It is a simple economic weighing the pros vs. cons . For the dealers it is well worth the risk of time in jail and getting shot at in order to make obscene amounts of money – it’s either that or working for minimum wage. If only they had some better alternatives. If only there were a better way to change someone’s habits other than time in the slammer.

Boy the costs sure do add up – the good news is I don’t have to do a complete analysis of the costs to figure it out. I’ll throw out some numbers and you think of ways you would rather use the money.

$15 billion in Obama’s 2011 budget request. Add that to state government spending of $30+ million. That’s per year. And it keeps going up.

Over the last 40 years it has cost $121 billion to arrest drug offenders and $450 billion to lock those people up in federal prisons. That is an expensive hotel bill. You know how they say it costs more in legal bills to give someone a death sentence than it does to lock them up and feed them for the rest of their lives? Well how many of our tax dollars go to public prosecutors to convict them? Again, I don’t have to know the answer to that question to know it is too much.

The Obvious First Step
Why not start by legalizing the least harmful illegal drug that accounts for over half of all drug related arrests? Marijuana is healthier and safer than alcohol, a substance we have no reservations to abuse every weekend. Do you think the world is going to end if all of a sudden it is made legal? Let me ask this question: if you don’t smoke it now, are you going to start if it were legal tomorrow? Is the law really what is holding you back? I know it’s not the availability – go to a concert and you see people willingly sharing their joints.

Even though I am personally not attracted to marijuana, I can see the benefits of legalizing it. It takes an open mind to realize that legalizing a substance does not mean that you support it. Just like a stance for legalizing abortion doesn’t mean that you think it is the greatest hobby in the world.

Thinking Outside the Box
Switzerland sells heroin. That sentence alone is reason enough for a government to run the other direction. Switzerland started a program in 1994 to provide a steady, clean dose to junkies who have been using for years and failed to quit via other programs. They have reduced overdoses, HIV, and drug related crime. German, Dutch, and Canadian cities have since added their own heroin prescription programs.

Zurich was also home to a place in the early 90s affectionately named “Needle Park”. It was a place where heroin users could openly do their deed without prosecution. The idea was to keep them all in the same place so that social workers could provide clean needles and overdoses could be treated quicker. This idea didn’t last that long because of the type of people it attracted from all over Europe. But they tried. They realized things weren’t exactly going that well and tried to do something about it. I applaud their ballsy efforts.

Final Thoughts
It is easy for us sitting at home to say “drugs are bad”, “we should punish those responsible”, and “we can’t let them win”. But what is winning? Is the expectation that we will be able to entirely wipe recreational drug use off the face of the earth? Sorry, not possible.

Want to decrease drug related violence? Legalize it. All of it. If all drugs can be purchased from the government, guess who controls the price? If the drug cartels can’t make money they will quickly leave the business. It’s economic warfare and it may be the only way to end this 40 year war.

At the end of the day, you simply have to trust people to act in their own best interest. If people realize it is in their best interest to not get addicted to drugs, they won’t use them. About 1.3% of the population will disregard the advice.

Please leave your thoughts below – I am interested in hearing who is reading and what you think on such a controversial topic. As always, be considerate of other viewpoints …


8 thoughts on “Is it Time to Rethink the War on Drugs?

  1. kasey says:

    i think you make a solid argument. the war on drugs is expensive. it is also an artifact of a decade infamous for its prolific and casual abuse of narcotics. a new approach is needed. however, while legalizing drugs may seem like a panacea, i am skeptical about some of the side-effects.

    do we really control the price of drugs if we legalize them? maybe laissez-faire will win out in the end and capitalism will do what it does best.

    legalizing use does not equal legalizing vending.

    in order to sell, vendors would need to be permitted by the government. hello heroin tax (we are taxing tanning salons- we sure as heck will tax heroin). but what if the price becomes cost-prohibitive? well, people already know how to get it illegally. we’ve already established that we don’t want to waste time and resources arresting dealers. so instead we need to make our American endorsed drugs cheaper and easier to access than the dealers. thus making drug use more financially feasible and perhaps attractive. i’m not saying the ends wouldn’t justify the means. that’s just a really tough sales pitch to put a positive twist on.

    anyway i am rambling. i think this war needs a makeover- legalization may be part of that makeover- but education, prevention, and rehabilitation all need to play a role as well. and we need to make sure we are considering the implications and complications associated with legalizing any drugs. that’s a road you don’t want to head down unless you are sure.

    • Skinner says:

      You definitely raise some good points. Let’s dig into those a bit deeper. First, when I speak to legalizing I refer to buying/selling, but legal transport and use obviously play a role, just it is important to not have conflicting state and federal laws.

      The current drug market is not lzf, in fact it is as far from lzf as you can get – drugs are flat out illegal. This is why the grower-to-user supply chain has not been streamlined – drugs go through 5+ middle men (that’s a guess), each taking a cut of the money, before it gets to the buyer. So, legalizing, even if taxed and heavily regulated, will be more lzf.

      Fully hands off economic policy would look something like the pork bellies or grain trade (without the government rebates). Drugs would be listed on exchanges (similar to stocks) so that anyone could buy or sell. Just like the other tangible goods, there would be some QA process to ensure the heroin you sell is up to the set standards. So… you would have growers selling directly distributers (e.g. Walgreens) via the exchange, cutting out the drug cartels.

      Government control is similar to a heavily taxed version of the exchange idea. Growers sell to the government at a fluctuating price, who then sell to distributors at a fixed marked up price. The growers price will fluctuate because the government will say how much they are
      buying and all the growers low cut each other to sell their goods (if other countries don’t follow suit, it may weaken the free market pull to a lower price).

      A true lzf policy would flatten the price of the drug to the market demand. (Currently the price is artificially boosted by middle men taking cuts, risks of death, jail, and seized product.) Then we can focus on trying to keep demand low through education and rehabilitation.

      Yes, the price of drugs would be lower and they would be more accessible. No, I (or anyone) am able to predict exactly how this would play out. But let me take a crack at two market segments I think I can predict. 1) Myself (and other non-users). If the price of heroin went to $0 I still wouldn’t buy it. 2) Addicts. They will continue to
      buy drugs, but in safer conditions with more opportunity for help.

      I am not suggesting this is a complete answer or the approach for all drugs. For example, meth is cheap and there isn’t as much violence as in the heroin or cocaine trade. Thus, it is high risk that the program will work (legit market more attractable than black market) and low reward. I also certainly would not suggest legalizing all drugs at once – it should be highly organized and I think we will learn a lot each time.

      • kh says:

        i hear what you’re saying (or comprehend what you’re writing?). i’m just gonna keep playing devil’s advocate cause it’s fun.

        so let’s say we do legalize drugs- all drugs. And we start growing them, legally, here in the U.S. Are we going to let everyone buy and use? Or do we need to wait until we are 18 like tobacco, or 21 like alcohol, the two most obvious examples of regulated drugs currently on the market? Or are we suggesting that we make all forms of drugs legal to peoples of all ages?

        And if we really want to get economic about this and let the free market reign, do we allow those drug companies to market? Currently we regulate how, where, and when tobacco and alcoholic bevs can market to us. So do we similarly regulate marketing for these new drugs?

        Because you’re right, a cheaper heroin might not make you want to buy it. But a cheaper heroin that you think can make you cooler, funnier, and more interesting may affect an impressionable 15 year old. In the U.S. we are extremely good at manipulating the public psyche to consume what we want it to. It is a powerful tool; but can also be self-destructive.

        But no one in the U.S. would be that immoral, right? In the words of Michelle Tanner, Pah-lease! We sell things that kill people for money on a daily basis here in the U.S. and we all sleep soundly at night. I have complete faith in the immortality of American moguls. Big Tobacco and the pharmaceutical industry are shining examples.

        Just some food for thought.

  2. Skinner says:

    Legal to all ages? No way! How liberal do you think I am?

    I also think it is a bad idea to let drug companies compete directly for customers. Not only do I think this for my envisioned recreational drug (heroin) scenario, but for current prescription drugs. Did you know the US and New Zealand are the only countries that allow for prescription drugs to market directly to consumers? When a patient comes in asking for blood pressure medicine X, it influences doctors into prescribing a certain drug when they might not otherwise. But back to heroin…

    These drugs should be heavily regulated. Not by prescription, but there should be some hoops to jump through to get them. For example, the first time you might have to go through a short psych exam and questions to make sure you aren’t giving them to junkies or kids. Maybe yearly health exams to make sure they aren’t killing you. Then there should be limits to how much a person can get in a time period. It should be kept track of so that if someone is taking the max amount of heroin for 2 years you can offer them help. Eventually they will accept on their own.

    Even if there is a limit to how much you can get, say at 75% of what they heaviest users take, that would effectively kill the black market for heroin. If over 75% of the market went away, that would equal good things for violence and the prospects of the poorest communities. They would do other things! School! Real jobs! Crocheting sweaters! Staying out of jail!

    • jessem says:

      I’m not going to directly reply to what the two of you are discussing, but instead share a synopsis of a sweet experiment I read about recently that is related.

      Rat Park – Some dude in Canada (Bruce Alexander) decided drugs weren’t actually addictive and that all the studies on rats and whatnot were bogus because of the conditions the rats were living in. Basically, his hypothesis came down to this… If you or I were trapped in a tiny cage with virtually no access to fun, social interactions, and all the other good things of life – and then you were given the option to get high as frequently as you wanted on morphine – who wouldn’t get high all the time?

      So what he did to test that the reason rats got high when given the option was not due to an addiction, but rather the absence of other pleasure-inducing situations. He built something called ‘Rat Park’, which was basically a large and glorious room with wonderful scenery, nice wood chips to sit on, wheels to run on, other rats to play with, water, food, space to raise your baby rats… everything you’d want if you were a rat. Then he gave them two choices for water – one laced with morphine and one with regular water. Almost every rat picked regular water.

      So that doesn’t prove drugs aren’t addictive, but basically shows rats won’t get high when they have other options. Next he got a bunch of the rat park rats ‘addicted’ to the morphine water by adding sugar to it and gradually increasing the dosage so that they were very high a lot of the time. Then he took the sugar out of the morphine water and watched what they drank. Again, most went back to regular water, which is very surprising because we’d assume the withdrawal symptoms would be too much to bare. Now, he did notice some symptoms (twitching legs, etc), but to a very limited extent and even those with symptoms still preferred normal water because they would rather have ‘real fun’ with their rat friends than ‘fake fun’ in the pleasure centers of their brains.

      So why are people addicted to drugs? Mostly because they have nothing else to turn to and need an escape from their life because there is no such thing as ‘Human Park’ while we’re alive, and if there were… they certainly aren’t living in it.

      … Maybe drugs should only be legal outside of urban areas… HA!

  3. JB says:

    Focusing here on marijuana, as the “War on drugs” is broad.

    I live in San Francisco, near a medicinal marijuana dispensary. It’s interesting to observe the broad range of folks who frequent this spot. I don’t find myself drawn to marijuana, but it is clearly not hard to purchase based on, as Skinner said, the fact that joints are passed around freely at every concert that I’ve been to in the bay area. Whether marijuana is purchased with a prescription or by other means, the bottom line is that the drug is ever present.

    The 0% change in high school drug use stat is astounding to me. Clearly, something is not working. I’m not well-read on the subject of legalization, but I do see the potential benefits of the legalization of marijuana. Allocating some of the funds that go towards the “fight” against the drug could, in theory, be used towards educational and treatment programs to help people manage the drug.

    Growing up, my parents were pretty open when it came to alcohol. If I wanted to try a beer, I could. I tried beer and wine, but I didn’t like it, so I didn’t drink it. I have grown to like beer over the years, but these early experiences were formative. It made me aware of the choice I had, and the need to manage this choice. I think this took away some of the allure of drinking.

    Assuming that, if legalized, the legal age for marijuana use would be 18, what if there was a “drug ed” class in high school, where you could try marijuana under supervision? Would it help people begin to grasp the power of the choice and aide in educating young people in how to manage this choice?

    • Skinner says:

      I think legalizing marijuana would remove some of the taboo associated with the drug, whether that is good or bad I don’t know. Like you said, it would most likely take away some of the allure of smoking it, which might help you look at the negative aspects more. But it would also result in more people trying it because it is no longer unthinkable. In the end it is necessary to trust people to use this power responsibly – the people that don’t are the same ones that would have bought it illegally on the street anyway.

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