Why We Should End The Failed War On Drugs (And Legalization Is The Best Alternative)



“It constantly amazes me that defenders of the free market are expected to offer certainty and perfection while government has only to make promises and express good intentions.” This double standard, recognized by Lawrence Reed, is particularly evident with respect to the “war on drugs.” Despite over a trillion dollars spent, the arrest and imprisonment of millions of Americans,  and cities that have been turned into virtual war zones, we are no closer to eliminating the scourge of drug abuse today than when Nixon declared illicit drugs “public enemy number one” and promised to wage “an all-out, global war” “to fight and defeat this enemy.” After 45 years, few would dispute that the “war on drugs” has been an abject failure.

Yet, while popular support for marijuana legalization has increased dramatically in recent years, and the majority of Americans support some form of criminal justice reform that would refocus drug policy on treatment instead of imprisonment, legalization of all illicit drugs is often still viewed as a radical idea that does not even warrant consideration. Superficially, the rejection of legalization is understandable: drug abuse is a serious problem, and legalization does not offer a certain or perfect solution. While politicians can promise that the “war on drugs” will lead to a “drug-free” American, proponents of legalization cannot. While arresting drug dealers and seizing drug shipments makes it seem like we are doing something, legalization seems like giving up. Legalization just feels wrong to so many that have come to believe that government should be proactive in addressing all societies’ ills.

Legalization, however, should not be judged against government promises of a “drug-free” utopia that will never be fulfilled. The imperfect policy of legalization should be judged against the failed policy of prohibition. When that is done, the superficial rejection of legalization does not withstand analysis.

Current Drug Policy Is An Abject Failure

In 1925, journalist H.L. Mencken wrote:

Five years of Prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. 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. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.

After 45 years, the same may be said today regarding the “war on drugs.” For decades, politicians have promised that stronger drug laws, stricter enforcement, and longer prison sentences would help to achieve a “drug-free” America. But, they have not. As shown on the chart at the beginning of this article, while the costs of prosecuting the “war on drugs” have risen exponentially, addiction rates have remained relatively unchanged (and in fact are slightly higher today than when the “war on drugs” began). Drug use, similarly, has been flat to slightly rising for years:


This should come as no surprise. Just as the prohibition of alcohol did not stop people from drinking, the prohibition of gambling does not stop betting, and the prohibition of prostitution does not prevent over one-million Americans from engaging in prostitution, the prohibition of drugs does not and cannot prevent drug use — it just moves the drug trade from the legitimate marketplace to the black market. As much as politicians try, even government cannot ignore the laws of economics: as long as there is consumer demand for a good or service, the market will satisfy that demand, whether legally or illegally.

Indeed, if 45 years of failure is not sufficient evidence that the “war on drugs” cannot be won, consider that the government cannot even keep drugs out of prisons, as evidenced by this news report showing Facebook videos taken by inmates as they used drugs in their prison cells. Think about that: the government cannot keep drugs from being smuggled into a tightly-controlled, isolated facility and from being used by prisoners while under 24-hour guard. There is simply no hope that government enforcement efforts could ever prevent drugs from being smuggled into the country or from being sold and used throughout American cities.

The failure of the “war on drugs” to achieve (or even to make progress towards) its objectives, however, is only the beginning. The most devastating consequences of the “war on drugs” have been its collateral damage.

Largely because of the drug war, far more Americans are incarcerated today than ever before:


In 2014 alone, there were over 1.5 million drug arrests, 83% of which were for simple possession. Even the arrests that do not result in a prison sentence can be life-altering for someone that now has a criminal record and may have difficulty obtaining employment, housing, school admission, or other benefits. It is worth noting that the last three Presidents are among the over 127 million Americans who have used illegal drugs — one can only imagine how their life trajectory may have been different if they had been caught and convicted for simple drug possession. Then again, drug enforcement has never been quite as aggressive on the campuses of Harvard and Yale as in the inner cities of New Haven and Boston. Thus, while Obama, Bush, and Clinton escaped this fate, millions of Americans have had their freedom taken and their futures destroyed for a “crime” that has been committed by about one-half of the adult population.

Prohibition also makes drugs far more dangerous. Often called the “iron law of prohibition,” when alcohol or drugs are prohibited, they are sold through black markets in more concentrated and powerful forms. This effect was seen during alcohol prohibition, when beer was replaced almost entirely by hard alcohol and fortified wines, and hard alcohol became more concentrated than ever before. The chart below shows the percentage of alcohol sales that were hard alcohol around the time of prohibition:


The same effect is seen today due to drug prohibition. Drugs are becoming increasingly potent, and the market is producing stronger alternatives. This has deadly consequences. Much of the recent spike in heroin overdoses can be attributed to suppliers mixing fentanyl (a drug 20-100 times stronger, and cheaper, than heroin) with heroin, often without the users’ knowledge. In New Hampshire, for instance, two-thirds of the over 420 heroin overdoses last year involved fentanyl. Similar dangers arise from the use of increasingly common designer drugs like bath salts or spice, a synthetic marijuana that has been leaving users in a semi-conscious, zombie-like state. So, the “war on drugs” has not only failed to reduce drug use, but it has made drug use more dangerous.

The collateral damage, however, reaches far beyond those involved with drugs. Millions of innocent Americans are forced to live in virtual war zones, as gang violence fueled by control of the drug trade dominates inner cities. Unlike most businesses, drug gangs cannot settle their disputes legally, so they resort to force, violence, and intimidation. The profits from the drug trade strengthen these criminal gangs, and provide them the means to entice new recruits with promises of easy money.

Beyond our boarders, tens of thousands have died in drug-fueled conflicts in Mexico and Central America, while drug cartels make billions off of the illegal drug trade. And, profits from the drug trade are one of the primary sources of funding for international terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda and ISIS, with some estimating that ISIS could make over $1 billion per year from the drug trade. (Notably, stronger enforcement efforts only raise the price of drugs making it more profitable for these criminal and terrorist organizations.)

In sum, the “war on drugs” has failed to reduce use or addiction rates, has imprisoned and destroyed the lives of millions, has made drugs more dangerous, has fueled crime, and has been a financial boon to gangs, cartels, and terrorist organizations. Only in government could this record of failure and destruction continue for 45 years. It is far past time that the “war on drugs” come to an end.

Legalization Is The Better Alternative

There is now widespread agreement that the “war on drugs” is a failure. With this growing recognition, a shift in focus from arresting and imprisoning drug offenders to providing treatment would be a positive. So too would be a move towards the legalization of marijuana. But, these incremental policy changes fail to address the heart of the problem: prohibition does not work, and it results in serious unintended consequences. Even a more significant shift to decriminalization of all illicit drugs would leave in place a black market run by street gangs, drug cartels, and terrorist organizations. Once we accept the reality that regardless of government policy, there will always be people who want to buy drugs, and there will always be people willing to sell them, legalization is the only solution that eliminates the unintended consequences of prohibition.

While the uncertainty of legalization may seem disconcerting, remember that the United States has undergone a comprehensive experiment in drug legalization before. On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment ended alcohol prohibition, and the effects were almost immediate. The tainted alcohol that killed thousands during prohibition was replaced with purer, safer products. As shown in the last chart above, consumers instantly reverted to drinking more beer and wine instead of stronger and more dangerous hard alcohols. And, organized crime and the violence that it caused was largely eliminated. The chart below shows that dramatic decrease in the homicide rate following the end of prohibition:


Similar decreases were seen in robberies, burglaries, and assaults. As explained by sociologist John Pandiani, “a major wave of crime appears to have begun as early as the mid 1920s [and] increased continually until 1933 . . . when it mysteriously reversed itself.” Of course, it is no mystery that this crime wave just happened to coincide with the years of prohibition.

We can also look to the experience of Portugal, which decriminalized all drugs in 2001 over objections that drug use would skyrocket. But, just the opposite has occurred. Drug use in Portugal is significantly lower today than it was in 2001 before decriminalization, in large part due to a significant increase in users seeking voluntary treatment without fear of facing criminal charges. Overdose deaths plummeted, with Portugal now having one of the lowest drug-induced death rates in the world. New HIV infections saw a similar decline. Decriminalization in Portugal is now widely hailed as a resounding success.

There is no way to know whether legalization in the United States would result in a similar decrease in drug use as was seen following decriminalization in Portugal. The positive response to some local “amnesty” programs in America, however, provides hope that there would be a similar surge in addicts who, once allowed to emerge from the shadows, would seek treatment for their disease.

On that note, we should recognize that drug use is not the same as drug abuse. An individual choosing to relax by drinking a cannabis tea in the evening should be seen as no more a downside of legalization than a person enjoying a glass of red wine. Likewise, casual use of drugs like mushrooms, cocaine, or MDMA is unlikely to cause an individual harm, and should not be the government’s concern. While drug abuse and addiction can destroy lives (just as can many other forms of addiction), drug use has the potential to increase an individual’s happiness and quality of life. Both an increase in responsible drug use, and a decrease in addiction and drug abuse, could be beneficial consequences of legalization.

Legalization would also mean an end to the unintended negative consequences of prohibition. Legal manufacturers and distributors would replace drug cartels and street gangs, which would see their profits lost and power diminished the same as the crime syndicates of the 1930s. Gang violence would decrease as the primary source of conflict would be eliminated, and the end of street dealing would return inner city neighborhoods to their law-abiding residents. Inner city kids now lured to gangs by the financial rewards of drug dealing would be more likely to stay in school and to follow legitimate pursuits. Law enforcement resources could be refocused on violent crime instead of catching and punishing non-violent drug offenders. And, terrorist organizations like ISIS would be deprived of a primary source of their funding.

Drugs would be safer and less potent. As seen in Portugal, overdose deaths would be substantially reduced. There would be no more “hot shots” or tainted drugs, as legal manufacturers would have an incentive to produce quality products and could be held legally responsible for harm caused by impurities. Manufacturers would also be incentivized to create new, safer drugs that that would provide similar “benefits” but cause less harm. And, if necessary, users could seek medical attention without fear of criminal reprisal.

It is also estimated that legalization would result in an economic benefit of between $65-$85 billion annually.

Legalization does not promise to be a perfect solution. Certainly, alcohol legalization did not mean an end to all alcohol-related problems — but it did make things a whole lot better than they were during prohibition. The “war on drugs” has been a failure because it ignores the economic reality that prohibition simply does not work. It is well past time that the federal government end the “war on drugs” and federal prohibition, allowing the states to experiment with legalization.

(Note: The $1.5 trillion figure in the chart at the beginning represents all costs associated with the drug war, while the chart itself shows only federal drug control spending. While the specific figures are difficult to measure and could possibly be disputed, the fact depicted that we are spending a lot of money and getting no results cannot.)