Pubdate: Mon, 05 Feb 2001
Source: National Review (US)
Copyright: 2001 National Review
Contact:  215 Lexington Avenue, New York, New York 10016
Author: Timothy Lynch


America's drug policies are never seriously debated in Washington.
Year after year, our elected representatives focus on two questions:
How much more money should we spend on the drug war? and, How should
it be spent? In the months preceding elections, politicians typically
try to pin blame for the drug problem on one another. After the
election, the cycle begins anew.

Outside the capital, however, there is growing unease about the war on
drugs. More and more Americans are concluding that the drug war has
been given a chance to work and has failed. Voters in California,
Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Alaska, and Maine have rejected
the lobbying efforts of federal officials and approved initiatives
calling for the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Two
sitting governors, Jesse Ventura of Minnesota and Gary Johnson of New
Mexico, have declared the drug war a failure. As public opinion
continues to turn against the war, we can expect more elected
officials to speak out.

Federal officials do not yet appreciate the extent of public
dissatisfaction with the war on drugs. Congress continues to propose
and enact laws with such platitudinous titles as "The Drug-Free
Century Act." Not many people outside the capital are even paying
attention to those laws, and even fewer take the rhetoric seriously.

To be sure, some people of good will continue to support the drug war.
Their rationale is that we may not be close to achieving a "drug-free"
society, but our present situation would only deteriorate if the
government were to stop prosecuting the drug war. The burden of
persuasion on that proposition has always rested with drug reformers.
But nowadays it is a burden reformers happily accept, buoyed as they
are by the realization that momentum in the debate is shifting in
their direction.

Reformers are as eager as ever to debate the efficacy of the drug laws
while supporters of the drug war discuss the issue only grudgingly.
Reformers ask: Why should an adult man or woman be arrested,
prosecuted, and imprisoned for using heroin, opium, cocaine, or
marijuana? The answer, according to the most prominent supporters of
the drug war, is simple: Drug use is wrong. It is wrong because it is
immoral, and it is immoral because it degrades human beings. The
prominent social scientist James Q. Wilson has articulated that view
as follows: "Even now, when the dangers of drug use are well
understood, many educated people still discuss the drug problem in
almost every way except the right way. They talk about the 'costs' of
drug use and the 'socioeconomic factors' that shape that use. They
rarely speak plainly drug use is wrong because it is immoral and it is
immoral because it enslaves the mind and destroys the soul."

William J. Bennett, America's first drug czar, has expressed a similar
view: "A citizen in a drug-induced haze, whether on his backyard deck
or on a mattress in a ghetto crack house, is not what the Founding
Fathers meant by the 'pursuit of happiness.' . . . Helpless wrecks in
treatment centers, men chained by their noses to cocaine these people
are slaves."

Wilson, Bennett, and their supporters believe that to eradicate this
form of slavery, the government should vigorously investigate,
prosecute, and jail anyone who sells, uses, or possesses mind-altering
drugs. The criminal sanction should be used in Bennett's words "to
take drug users off the streets and deter new users from becoming more
deeply involved in so hazardous an activity."

For more than 25 years, the political establishment has offered
unflagging support for the ban on drugs. In 1973, President Nixon
created the Drug Enforcement Administration, a police agency that
focuses exclusively on federal drug-law violations. President Reagan
designated narcotics an official threat to America's national
security; he also signed legislation authorizing the military to
assist federal and state police agencies in the drug war. In 1988,
Congress created the Office of National Drug Control Policy; President
Bush appointed Bennett national drug czar to centralize control and
coordinate activities of federal agencies in the drug war. President
Clinton appointed a former military commander, Gen. Barry McCaffrey,
as drug czar.

Since the early 1970s, Congress has been escalating the federal
government's drug-war efforts. In 1979, the federal government spent
$900 million on various antidrug programs; in 1989, it spent $5
billion; by 1999, it was spending nearly $18 billion.

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, vigorous
law-enforcement tactics help reduce drug abuse chiefly by reducing
demand and disrupting supply. Enforcement of the drug laws reduces
demand by increasing social disapproval of substance abuse; arrest and
threatened imprisonment also offer a powerful incentive for addicts to
take treatment seriously. Drug enforcement disrupts supply by
detecting and dismantling drug rings, which facilitate the movement of
drugs from suppliers to the streets.

Congress has devoted billions of dollars to these tasks, and there
have been palpable results. To begin with, the criminal-justice system
has grown much larger: There are more police officers, prosecutors,
judges, and prison guards than ever before. The number of arrests,
convictions, and prisoners has increased exponentially; so has the
amount of seized contraband. In February 1999, the New York Times
reported that "every 20 seconds, someone in America is arrested for a
drug violation. Every week, on average, a new jail or prison is built
to lock up more people in the world's largest penal system."

There is certainly a lot of government activity; but is the Office of
National Drug Control Policy really achieving its twin objectives of
reducing demand and disrupting supply? The demand for illegal drugs
remains strong. According to the National Household Survey on Drug
Abuse, 11 million Americans can be classified as "current users" (past
month) of marijuana and 1.75 million Americans as current users of
cocaine. As startling as those numbers are, they represent only the
tip of the proverbial iceberg. Millions of other individuals can be
classified as "occasional users," and tens of thousands of people use
less popular illicit drugs, such as heroin and methamphetamine. In
short: The government's own statistics admit that millions and
millions of Americans break the law every single month.

The supply of drugs has not been hampered in any serious way by the
war on drugs. A commission on federal law-enforcement practices
chaired by former FBI director William Webster recently offered this
blunt assessment of the interdiction efforts: "Despite a record number
of seizures and a flood of legislation, the Commission is not aware of
any evidence that the flow of narcotics into the United States has
been reduced." Perhaps the most dramatic evidence of the failure of
the drug war is the flourishing of open-air drug markets in
Washington, D.C. the very city in which the drug czar and the Drug
Enforcement Administration have their headquarters.

Even though law enforcement has been unable to seriously disrupt
either the supply of or the demand for illegal drugs, many hesitate to
draw the conclusion that the drug war has failed. They choose to focus
on the evils of drug use, and the need to keep up the fight against
it, on the grounds that even an incomplete success is better than a
surrender. But a fair appraisal of the drug war must look beyond drug
use itself, and take into account all of the negative repercussions of
the drug war. It is undeniable that the criminalization of drug use
has created an immense and sophisticated black market that generates
billions of dollars for gangster organizations. The criminal proceeds
are often used to finance other criminal activity. Furthermore, rival
gangs use violence to usurp and defend territory for drug sales.
Innocent people die in the crossfire.

Then there is the cost. Billions of taxpayer dollars are squandered
every year to keep drugs from entering the country. The government
cannot even keep narcotics out of its own prisons and yet it spends
millions every month trying to keep contraband from arriving by air,
land, and sea.

Prosecuting the war also involves a disturbingly large number of
undesirable police practices: Paramilitary raids, roadblocks,
wiretaps, informants, and property seizures have all become routine
because of the difficulty of detecting drug offenses. Countless
innocent people have had their phones tapped and their homes and cars
searched. A criminal-justice system that devotes its limited resources
to drug offenders is necessarily distracted from investigating other
criminal activity such as murder, rape, and theft.

Unfortunately, the most prominent supporters of the drug war have refused to
grapple with these grim consequences of their policy. Drug legalization, they
retort, would undermine the moral sanction against drug use. William 
Bennett has
actually indulged in a comparison that would equate alternative drug policies
such as decriminalization with surrender to the Nazis: "Imagine if, in the
darkest days of 1940, Winston Churchill had rallied the West by saying, 'This
war looks hopeless, and besides, it will cost too much. Hitler can't be that
bad. Let's surrender and see what happens.' That is essentially what we hear
from the legalizers."

After decades of ceaseless police work, it is safe to say that Bennett
is confusing perseverance with bullheadedness. One thoughtful analyst,
Father John Clifton Marquis, recognized as long ago as 1990 that "when
law does not promote the common good, but in fact causes it to
deteriorate, the law itself becomes bad and must be changed. . . .
Authentic moral leaders cannot afford the arrogant luxury of machismo,
with its refusal to consider not 'winning.'"

Marquis is correct; and this is precisely why Bennett's World War II
imagery is misplaced. The notion that the drug czar is somehow leading
an army against an evil foe is an example of what Marquis calls
"arrogant machismo." A more apt analogy would be America's 15-year
experience with alcohol prohibition: Americans rejected Prohibition
because experience showed the federal liquor laws to be unenforceable
and because alcohol prohibition led to gang wars and widespread
corruption. The war on drugs has created a similar set of problems.

The most valuable lesson that can be drawn from the Prohibition
experience is that government cannot effectively engineer social
arrangements. Policymakers simply cannot repeal the economic laws of
supply and demand. Nor can they foresee the unintended consequences
that follow government intervention. Students of American history will
someday wonder how today's lawmakers could readily admit that alcohol
prohibition was a disastrous mistake, but simultaneously engage in a
reckless policy of drug prohibition.

Drug policy in America needs to be reinvented, starting with a tabula
rasa. Policymakers ought to address the issue in an open, honest, and
mature manner. A growing number of Americans are coming to the
conclusion that the law should treat substances such as marijuana and
cocaine the same way it treats tobacco, beer, and whiskey: restricting
sales to minors and jailing any user who endangers the safety of
others (by, for example, operating an automobile while under the
influence). Education, moral suasion, and noncoercive social pressure
are the only appropriate ways to discourage adult drug use in a free
and civil society.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Derek