Drug wars in northern Mexico, fed by guns and money from the United States, and spilling over into this country, remind us that the trade in illegal drugs remains a huge problem.
We have been engaged since around 1970 in a succession of efforts by successive administrations to wage war on illegal drug trafficking, and there is widespread agreement across the ideological spectrum that we’ve made no headway. The numbers of Americans using illegal drugs have, if anything, increased. Drug-related crime is a huge portion of all crime, whether we refer to addicts staging robberies and burglaries, or to violence between participants in the trade. We have the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and most of our prison population are there because of drug-related convictions.
Moreover, the war on drugs exacts a terrible price from other countries involved in feeding our ravening appetite for these drugs. Producer countries like Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia (cocaine) or Afghanistan (heroin) have their whole societies and polities taken over and corrupted by the trade. Countries that are used for transit of drugs en route to the United States (like Mexico) are subject to similar corrosive tendencies.
Drug-related turmoil in supplier countries affects us directly. Afghanistan produces almost all of the world’s supply of heroin, and the Taliban are using most of the proceeds to support their war against the United States and its Afghani allies. Similarly, in Colombia and Peru, insurgents that the US has been trying to defeat are financing their resistance with cocaine. At the same time, many of our supposed allies in those countries also have a hand in the cocaine trade. Cocaine has corrupted virtually all sectors of Colombian society. Coca production on a scale far larger than legal use would justify provides the underpinning for Evo Morales in his aggressive challenge to the US in Bolivia.
In short, our war on drugs has boomeranged; we have promoted increased violence and incarceration at home, and subsidized challenges to our interests abroad.
Why not stop doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result? Why not try legalizing and regulating drugs, just as we do with alcohol and tobacco? It wouldn’t be necessary to abandon prohibition cold turkey; the fact is, we haven’t ever tried it. Having tried prohibition with active international enforcement for half a century, we know that it hasn’t worked. We don’t know how legalization would work, but it would be worth an experiment.
I propose that President Obama simply declare a de facto moratorium on drug enforcement for a specific period, such as one year, during which time we will be able to see whether the problems cited above actually improve, and whether other problems develop that might be worse.
It is predictable that most drug-related violence would diminish as the drug trade becomes less lucrative, though it’s also possible that rival cartels might battle each other for a shrinking market. It is predictable that we would see some increase in the use of these drugs as the risk of arrest is eliminated and the price drops. To the extent that drug use impairs the capacity of the user, that is a loss to them and to the larger society, but society might be better able to mitigate the damage when drug use doesn’t have to be underground. And with legal and affordable drugs available, we should see an end to crimes committed by users needing a fix.
As the trade become less lucrative, fewer farmers in Afghanistan or Bolivia will produce the raw materials, and cartels will turn elsewhere for quick profits. The Shining Path in Peru and the Taliban in Afghanistan will lose their main source of funds. The United States (and state governments as well) will be able to divert resources from the drug war to other priorities, and end the overcrowding of our prisons.
If the results of the experiment prove positive enough, then it would be time to make legislative changes that would regulate drug production and sale, as well as usage, much as alcohol is regulated now. Drugs could provide a potent new source of revenues for the federal and state governments, even as the costs of the drug war are eliminated.
It only took us 15 years to realize that prohibition of alcohol wouldn’t work. The learning curve on drugs has been a lot longer, but it’s time to try something different.