The failed war on drugs

The failure of the drug laws should be apparent to anyone. The gang violence and drug lords are very reminiscent of the gang violence during prohibition. Before we get into the solutions we should go into some of the history.

What most people don’t know is that most of the drug laws started with racial prejudice.

From Prohibition In America: A Brief History

1. The Yellow Menace

In the 1870s in America, large numbers of Chinese immigrants were arriving in search of better lives. Facing severe racism, these early Chinese-Americans were often forced to take the most brutal and low-paying jobs, such as building the network of railroad tracks that was becoming the backbone of American industry and expansion. Beyond their strong work ethic, many Chinese brought something else to America: a habit of smoking opium. (An activity introduced to the Chinese by the British, who ran a massive and lucrative smuggling trade bringing opium from India into China after it was outlawed in the late 1700s. When the Chinese cracked down on the illegal trade, the British began what would become known as the Opium Wars, eventually forcing China to re-legalize the opium trade.)

At first, the Americans had little interest in this use of opium (which was legal regardless), and the Chinese tended to form insular communities which limited their interactions with the then deeply racist white American majority. Still, as is always the case, not everybody was content to ignore these new Americans. Some were curious, others simply became familiar with them by working with Chinese laborers on jobs. Eventually, the idea of smoking opium grew within the consciousness of white America, with the more daring visiting Chinese opium smoking parlors to indulge in this new fad in intoxicants. At first this mixing of racial groups primarily involved adventurous young men, and raised little objection from the general public. Shortly, however, white women as well began to frequent the opium parlors.

In 1890, the infamous tabloid newspaper publisher W. R. Hearst (who would later become a staunch supporter of the Nazis) began a series of articles about the ‘Yellow Menace’, luridly describing Chinese men as seducing white women with opium. Already harboring a deep dislike of the Chinese, who many feared would overrun America, the public attitude towards opium continued to harden. Early local laws in response to the ‘opium menace’ varied: Sometimes opium was made illegal for Chinese while remaining legal for white people (who could apparently be trusted), in other cases opium was made illegal for whites to use while allowing Chinese to continue to use.

2) The Black Menace

Running in parallel to the saga of opium was the emergence of cocaine, the active component of coca leaves, which had been extracted by the Merck pharmaceutical company (which would later patent MDMA.) Initially hailed by Sigmund Freud as a “non-addictive” cure-all, cocaine saw use as a supplement in wines and was even the ‘special ingredient’ that Coca-Cola draws its name from. (‘Cola’ refers to the cola nut, which gave the drink its distinctive flavor.) Freud’s use of cocaine in his psychiatric practice did have a certain logic; a patient that is depressed or fatigued will almost certainly feel better with a liberal supply of cocaine, although that brings its own problems.

Helped along by this apparent medical value (medicine has traditionally focused on making people feel better instead of cures, which early medicine could rarely provide) cocaine also found its way into a myriad of elixirs and potions, sold door-to-door, from catalogues, traveling medicine shows, and even grocery stores. Movie stars and public figures used and endorsed the magical new drug, and use grew rapidly. Like opium, cocaine became regulated on the national level by the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, requiring content labels for products containing cocaine. Also like opium, it was included in the Harrison Tax Act, which effectively created outright prohibition of the drug.

In the US, cocaine abuse was associated with black men, first in the form of laborers using the drug to increase endurance while working long, grueling hours, then in the form of widespread use by Jazz musicians at scandalously racially integrated nightclubs. In yet another echo of opium’s history, the press began to spread lurid stories of “cocaine crazed Negroes” attacking white women in the southern states. In response to this fear of drug-fueled blacks, some police departments switched to more powerful handguns out of concern that their current pistols were not powerful enough to bring down such rampaging monsters. Later, Harry Anslinger (head of what would eventually become the DEA) called for harsher penalties for cocaine by describing scenes of racially mixed groups dancing together at clubs under the presumptive influence of cocaine.

3) All Mexicans Are Crazy….

In the early 1900s, Mexican and Mexican-American families began an exodus out of their traditional homes in the far southern states, spreading out into the US in search of work and opportunity; the pursuit of the American Dream. The white majority was less than happy with this development, both out of simple bigotry and fear of competition for jobs (a concern that would only become greater when the prosperity of the “roaring twenties” gave way to the misery of the Great Depression.) As the Chinese had, the Hispanic population brought its own traditions, including different preferences in drugs: The conservative Midwest was about to be introduced to marijuana.

As had occurred with other drugs, the first prohibition laws were created on the state and local level. Some of these legislative sessions produced true gems of enlightenment, such as when a legislator in Texas expressed his support of marijuana prohibition by declaring that “All Mexicans are crazy and marijuana is what makes them crazy.” (Although “cannabis” was more traditional, legislators uniformly chose to call the plant “marihuana”, after the Mexican word for it.)

One of the more humorous results of the government taking the position that smoking marijuana caused homicidal insanity was that several murderers claimed their use of the drug as a defense, arguing that they could not be help responsible for what had clearly been an act committed under the insidious control of Reefer Madness. Several offenders were actually acquitted; after all, the government was backing their argument!

For a supposed free country we have one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. One out of one hundred are in our jails or prisons, and the bulk of those are for non-violent drug or alcohol offences. Legalizing the drugs would eliminate a lot of the problems that we have in society now, I know, I know you say are you nuts.

Financial Costs

As often seems to be the case with government policies, there have been vastly more dollars given to fighting the ‘drug war’ than to actually determining if the approach was working. The US government has at least funded some research aimed at determining the costs of drug abuse to society. The most comprehensive study, prepared by the Lewin Group, dates from 1992 with an update performed for 1998.

The Lewin group estimated the total cost of illegal drug abuse in the US at $143 billion for the year 1998. If we extrapolate to 2003, the current cost would be close to $190 billion/year. That puts the cost to the economy at over $600 for every man, woman, and child in the US, every year, which sounds rather horiffic…but before you sign onto the Prohibitionist band wagon in horror, let’s look at the details.

According to this study, the breakdown of expenses is thus:

The Netherlands experiment.

The drug we have the most information on in terms of use within different legal climates is probably marijuana. The Netherlands has for thirty years pursued a ‘harm reduction’ approach to marijuana; although they haven’t entirely legalized it, they do permit the sale, use, and possession of small amounts by adults. What has the result been? Has their policy of treating marijuana use as just another personal vice instead of a criminal menace left the nation drowning in marijuana addicts? (And by the same token, has the fanatical US policy actually controlled marijuana?)

Data gathered by the European ESPAD survey and the US Monitoring the Future surveys of students. Data is for the year 1999 (the latest year for which data is available from both.)
OK, I stuck in the ecstasy use results as well out of personal interest (the Netherlands appears to be the heart of the world’s ecstasy trade, at one point producing as much as 80% of the world’s supply according to one DEA estimate.) They make more, purer, stronger, and cheaper ecstasy tablets than pretty much any other country…good pills can be had there for a few dollars apiece (as opposed to $15-$30 in the USA.) Indeed, the Netherlands is constantly accused of being ‘soft on drugs’ by the US. So, how is this possible? One of the most sacred premises of the drug war says that levels of drug use depend on price and availability, yet these results don’t seem to support that conclusion.

Perhaps even more striking are the results for marijuana. In spite of marijuana being openly and legally available in the Netherlands, considerably fewer of their young people currently use it, or have ever used it! How is such a thing possible if, as the prohibitionists claim, having marijuana illegal is the only thing that keeps us all from turning into unrepentant potheads?

I would suggest several factors. First, by outlawing drugs, the government has made them the ‘forbidden fruit’. Under prohibition, smoking pot is ‘cool’. It’s counterculture. Rebellious. Courageous. A statement. Under legalization, it’s just another unhealthy dumbass waste of your time and money. By effectively legalizing marijuana, the Netherlands has kept it in its place, countering ready and legal availability by denying it the prestige of government persecution.

It is clear than legalization of marijuana in the Netherlands has not caused runaway use. Even as adults, a person in the Netherlands is about half as likely as an American to be a pot smoker, in spite of our having arrested nearly 750,000 people for marijuana in 2001 alone. For all the lives disrupted and destroyed, for all the billions of dollars and fervent chest-beating by politicians, there is no evidence that America’s war on marijuana has had even the slightest positive impact on levels of drug use. That’s a pretty radical idea for most people, but…these are the numbers. If you can find a justification of marijuana prohibition in this or any other data, let me know.

Meanwhile in the US, the government continues to study substance use by young people. In the latest Monitoring the Future study (2002), 89% of high school seniors report that it would be “fairly easy” or “very easy” for them to get marijuana. So, if we really want to give the Prohibitionists the benefit of the doubt, we might say that they are keeping marijuana away from about 10% of young adults. (By the time they graduate high school, over half of American kids will have smoked marijuana.)

Harm Reduction Nations vs. Prohibitionist Nations.

The UN has dedicated a great deal of effort to tracking the drug trade around the world, including gathering information on usage rates of many drugs from numerous countries. Here are some of the most recent results (numbers in parenthesis indicate the age range studied and the year of the study; percentages are of people who used the drug in question within the past year.)


So I suggest that drugs be legalized and taxed to the extent that they are a cost to society. The benefits would far outweigh the alternative.

1) It would take the criminals out of the loop.

2) Since it would be sold by licensed dealers income tax would be paid.

3) Cops would be freed up looking for real criminals

4) Since it would be sold by licensed dealers it will be harder for kids to get.

5) Tax it like cigarettes and alcohol to pay for rehab and prisons.

6) It would free up the prisons and hardened criminals won’t get released because of overcrowding.

The bulk of this post came from
They go into great detail on the social costs of the drug war. as well as some interesting alternatives.

The bottom line is can we continue to fight a losing war that can’t be won and is costing us billions per year. When will we learn that you can’t legislate morality?

About Marshall Keith

Broadcast Engineer Scuba Diver Photographer Fisherman Hunter Libertarian
This entry was posted in War on Drugs and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The failed war on drugs

  1. Pingback: Reality check for tobacco control! « Ban the Ban Wisconsin

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