Sunday, February 26, 2006
WSJ: The war on drugs does more harm than the drugs
This is one of those subjects where everyone has a very strong opinion about drug policy reform, but overflowing prisons, police corruption, and laws that do more harm than the drugs themselves, the drift towards reform seems to be slowly moving forward.
WSJ editorial addresses the issue with seldom found candor:
Economist Milton Friedman predicted in Newsweek nearly 34 years ago that Richard Nixon's ambitious "global war against drugs" would be a failure. Much evidence today suggests that he was right. But the war rages on with little mainstream challenge of its basic weapon, prohibition.
To be sure, Mr. Friedman wasn't the only critic. William Buckley's National Review declared a decade ago that the U.S. had "lost" the drug war, bolstering its case with testimony from the likes of Joseph D. McNamara, a former police chief in Kansas City, Mo., and San Jose, Calif. But today discussion of the war's depressing cost-benefit ratio is being mainly conducted in the blogosphere, where the tone is predominantly libertarian. In the broader polity, support for the great Nixon crusade remains sufficiently strong to discourage effective counterattacks.
The drug war has become costly, with some $50 billion in direct outlays by all levels of government, and much higher indirect costs, such as the expanded prison system to house half a million drug-law offenders and the burdens on the court system. Civil rights sometimes are infringed. One sharply rising expense is for efforts to interdict illegal drug shipments into the U.S., which is budgeted at $1.4 billion this fiscal year, up 41% from two years ago.
That reflects government's tendency to throw more money at a program that isn't working. Not only have the various efforts not stopped the flow but they have begun to create friction with countries the U.S. would prefer to have as friends.
Milton Friedman saw the problem. To the extent that authorities curtail supplies of marijuana, cocaine and heroin coming into the rich U.S. market, the retail price of these substances goes up, making the trade immensely profitable--tax-free, of course. The more the U.S. spends on interdiction, the more incentive it creates for taking the risk of running drugs.
In 1933, the U.S. finally gave up on the 13-year prohibition of alcohol--a drug that is by some measures more intoxicating and dangerous to health than marijuana. That effort to alter human behavior left a legacy of corruption, criminality, and deaths and blindness from the drinking of bad booze. America's use of alcohol went up after repeal but no serious person today suggests a repeat of the alcohol experiment. Yet prohibition is still being attempted, at great expense, for the small portion of the population--perhaps little more than 5%--who habitually use proscribed drugs.So what's the alternative? An army of government employees now makes a living from the drug laws and has a rather conflictive interest in claiming both that the drug laws are working and that more money is needed. The challenge is issued: Do you favor legalization? In fact, most drugs are legal, including alcohol, tobacco and coffee and the great array of modern, life-saving drugs administered by doctors. To be precise, the question should be do you favor legalization or decriminalization of the sale and use of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines?
A large percentage of Americans will probably say no, mainly because they are law-abiding people who maintain high moral and ethical standards and don't want to surrender to a small minority that flouts the laws, whether in the ghettos of Washington D.C. or Beverly Hills salons. The concern about damaging society's fabric is legitimate. But another question needs to be asked: Is that fabric being damaged now?Mr. Melloan is deputy editor, international of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.
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