Free Markets, Free People

Prohibition still doesn’t work

One of the definitions of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  The “war on drugs” is a classic example of insanity at a world-wide level.   We learned in the early 20th century that prohibition doesn’t work.  Our experience with alcohol should have at least given us the basis for rejecting another such prohibition when it came to drugs.   However we have charged ahead and for decades waged what can only be termed a horribly expensive, liberty stealing campaign against drug use that has empowered criminal organizations and allowed them to become powerful enough to challenge some governments.

As should be clear to anyone, the “War on Drugs” is an epic failure.  If you don’t believe it, imagine numbers like this for any legitimate business and then factor in the ongoing campaign to deny the flow of the product:

It cites UN estimates that opiate use increased 35% worldwide from 1998 to 2008, cocaine by 27%, and cannabis by 8.5%.

In the face of the full might of the government of the US and many other governments in the world, this illegal enterprise has managed to supply demand that in some cases has increased 35% world wide.   And it has cost us billions in “enforcement”, filled our jails and essentially had no effect whatsoever on the net side of things.

What did we learn from our own prohibition era?  Apparently nothing.  The market that exists today for drugs is eerily similar to that which existed for alcohol during the era of prohibition.  It is a “black” market that exists because the demand exists, and government is single-handedly responsible for its existence.  

Simple economics spells out how this works.  There is an unfulfilled demand and whether or not you agree with the demand, the market will do all in its power to fill it.   Government declaring something “illegal” may dampen demand – at least for a while – but the market will still do its best to fill the demand as long as there’s a profit to be made.  All government does is change the nature of the market in question.   It can be legal (which means regulated, controlled and taxed) or illegal (which usually means unregulated, untaxed and usually dominated by criminals and gangs), but it is not going to go away just because a government declares something “illegal”.

For whatever reason, after observing the results of the existing (and mostly unchanged) drug policies over decades, our political leaders still can’t seem to figure out the fact that they’re not going to “win” this battle.  However, they can change the market dynamic tremendously simply by backing off of their desire to control what we consume and understanding that the best way to address such a market is through acceptance, regulation and taxation (yeah, I know, you never thought you’d hear a libertarian say that, but let’s be clear – that’s what we did with alcohol and it has worked).  

The argument that people will go hog wild if drugs are legalized I find to be as nonsensical as when the argument was used about alcohol during the prohibition era.  Those that are going to use drugs are most likely using them now.  Additionally, part of the allure of drugs is their illegality.  Yes, those with addictive personalities are probably going to get hooked on something – but given the inability of governments to stop drugs to this point, they’re likely already hooked on something anyway.  The point is having this all out in the open and legal removes tremendous costs from “enforcement” and the revenue generated by regulated drug sales could be put toward treatment regimes.  It also puts the criminals out of business and ends the drug related violence.

To this point, the War on Drugs has been an epic failure.   All it has done is criminalize a behavior, create a market for now powerful criminals, and wasted our tax dollars on trying to control behavior.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy report calls for the legalisation of some drugs and an end to the criminalisation of drug users.

I agree.  Of course, according to the story, the US and Mexican governments disagree.  Therefore the war on the border will continue, the funding of criminal (and terror) organizations will continue, and the militarization of the police and the resultant violation of the rights of citizens will also continue.  Jails will continue to fill even while drug sales continue to grow.

Our current drug policies are insane.  The numbers prove it.  It is time to stop the knee-jerk reaction to the term “drugs” and drastically reassess our approach to their control and use.   We’ve been through this before.   It is time we reviewed that era and applied its lessons.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO

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24 Responses to Prohibition still doesn’t work

  • Here, I offer a completely mixed response based upon my time as a temp for a Federal Magistrate … oh, a century ago. Then, I didn’t hide the fact that I pretty much agreed with what McQ is saying now. Then, … the criminal cases started to float across my desk as I prepared the paperwork for the Judge. The “boys and girls” who appeared in his court were anything but the “old hippy couple” growing pot on the back forty. No sir, those “folk” were seriously bad men and women. Clearly, drugs and drug running was the profit motive. The problem was that those folks were also arraigned because of the associated crimes of gun running, murder on the rare, odd day (and whose case was immediately transfered to the secretary’s desk for the Title III judge for the district), as well as being busted for the drug labs they created an ran. As far as I am concerned, their lengthy incarceration is full warranted.
     
    The problem is that folks just don’t seem know that there is a whole lot more than what gets shown on the nightly news. Just check out what’s going on down Mexico way.
     
    Ronald Reagan was both right and wrong by classifying America’s drug problem as a “war.” … And, rather strangely, I find myself agreeing with Ron Paul when Paul talks about drugs being a disease, as a user; and not so at odds with Reagan precisely because drug profits fuel continued interest in and the wont of profit from the drug trade. The narco-terrorists in Columbia (FARC) were the first to figure out the political connection as an unending source of “funding.”
     
    That “murder/death/kill” thing is the problem.

    • I was talking mostly about the filling of jails with users and petty pushers.

      • “I was talking mostly about the filling of jails with users and petty pushers.”

        McQ, I see your point but it just doesn’t get there, where … ever “there” is, depending upon the argument. Previous to the South-North drug cartel lambasting the US, throughout Central America you could also look to the “Golden Triangle” fully a half a generation earlier … Tell me, just how much of the history of Burma, Laos and Thailand do you know really know. It is complicated. … Then, way back during the days of drug running, the Golden Triangle drug runners were not drug users … that is a big difference.

    • By association, I recall a quote that parallels the idea of drugs <-> crime.
      “It’s said that “many are criminals because they are poor”. But in fact, they are poor because they are criminals. Who would trust some such person with economic resources or property? No, they are poor because they are criminals (have a criminal mindset/culture)”. (Paraphrase of renown criminal psychologist Stanton Samenow – http://members.cox.net/samenow/)
      So are they criminals because they are drug users, or are they drug users because they are, first and foremost, criminals?
      I’m not talking about the recreational user, many of whom are leading fairly normal and productive lives, much like alcohol users.

    • So Micheal, the guys who run drug gangs are bad people, granted.  But prohibition makes them bad people with lot’s of money.

  • McQ –  We learned in the early 20th century that prohibition doesn’t work.  Our experience with alcohol should have at least given us the basis for rejecting another such prohibition when it came to drugs.   However we have charged ahead and for decades waged what can only be termed a horribly expensive, liberty stealing campaign against drug use that has empowered criminal organizations and allowed them to become powerful enough to challenge some governments.


    One might make this argument about many crimes: despite the efforts of our police, courts, and prison officials, the crimes (speeding, drug use, robbery, rape, murder, etc.) continue to be committed.  At what point do we throw up our hands and say, “The cure is worse than the disease”?

    As a personal matter, I agree with McQ about legalization of drugs: if people want to engage in self-destructive behavior, then they should be allowed to do so; it’s a free country.

    However, I understand the arguments of those who want drugs to be illegal and drug trafficking to be combatted with all the resources and vigour we can bring to bear.  Drug use is a destructive habit, destructive not only to the user but also to his family and community.  It can therefore be argued that preventing drug use as well as we are able is LESS costly than letting drug abuse run rampant.  Further, some drugs are so addictive than a single dose (apparently) is enough to create an addict, who is then on the inevitable path to ruin which will see society robbed of his labor and skills, and indeed will see him become a BURDEN on society.  This doesn’t count the more immediate costs to his family.

    Unfortunately, there is no calculus that will tell us that “we are spending $X to fight the War on Drugs, but would spend only Y% of that if we legalized them.” In the absence of hard numbers, moral judgements hold greater sway, and most Americans have been conditioned to regard drug use and ESPECIALLY trafficking as a mortal sin, a crime that should be stamped out.

    • At the point where the solution ends up being as bad or worse than the problem and we have a proven method of addressing such a problem that has worked in the past.

      As for the “burden” argument – the burden already exists and will continue to exist. Our current method of trying to “prevent” it has failed miserably. Again, we’ve learned how to address that with our previous experience.

      • Our current method of trying to “prevent” it has failed miserably.

        Not only failed and miserably, but produced “unintended consequences” that are worse by orders of magnitude.
        Not that they are cause & effect, but the explosion of the welfare state is one likely cause/consequence (i.e., endless loop).

    • You may be sympathetic to those idiotic arguments but I am not.  Comparing drug use to crimes against persons like theft, rape and murder just does not wash. 

      Using drugs is in and of itself not a crime against other people.  Making it illegal is what causes it to be enmeshed with violence.

      • Please understand: I’m not sympathetic to the arguments.  I merely repeat them by way of playing devil’s advocate.

  • I’ve said since about the 80s something on the same lines.
    I called for (who listens?) a program of decriminalization, which is not really the same as legalization.  It included disenfranchisement for clinical addiction, and use of many drugs under prescription and doctor’s supervision.
    Some drugs are, IMNHO, really too dangerous to handle any other way.  Others, such as grass, not so much.  That could be as legal as booze, and I doubt very seriously it would do anything but perhaps lower its use, due to the well-understood “forbidden fruit” paradox.

  • Bruce! I’m impressed!

    For once you’re on the correct side of an issue! :-)

    • Heh … I’m always on the correct side – you just haven’t figured it out yet. ;)

      • Next you will be asking your readers and contributors to accept “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” as the song they have to sing as they proselytize the virtues of the legalization of drugs.  Really McQ!  And I suspect most if not all of the folks that post here can sing a lick (yours truly included).  I am like Actor212, have to agree wholeheartedly with McQ on this one.  Man, that’s tough to admit.

  • Thanks God drugs were only invented after the beginning of the 20th century.
     
    Imagine how difficult it would have been for us to build this great nation if Opiates, and Cannabis had been readily available to us in, oh, I don’t know, fields across the country, or even in soft drinks!  Imagine!  The terror!  The destruction wrought!  The malaise that would have made the US a hell hole of addicted individuals anchored to the east coast, never to have discovered the immense wealth and potential of the continent available to them because of DRUGS.
     
    So much safer now, course I can’t carry certain amounts of currency on my person because, heh, only DRUG DEALERS would ever carry that amount of cash and the police can confiscate it until I prove I DIDN’T obtain it illegally and occasionally a SWAT team may interrupt my rest in the wee hours of the morning serving a no-knock warrant to the wrong address.  And certainly we must agree that we’ve been ever so successful with our continued, ever improving, ever growing surveillance and observation and interdiction efforts.
     
    Yes, drug use is down, so we obviously have this under control.  Brilliant success, yes indeed.

  • Who said liberties?  what?

  • “Yes, those with addictive personalities are probably going to get hooked on something – but given the inability of governments to stop drugs to this point, they’re likely already hooked on something anyway. ” Well that explains the Federal budget deficit! Anyway start with marijuana and see how that goes. Some drugs must never be tolerated such as methamphetamine. People who produce and sell that must be slowly burned alive as an example to others.

    • Sure, some designer drugs will remain, but I bet if you open up the natural pharma that is now illegal the designer stuff would see less demand.

  • I’ve been saying for many years that Prohibition gave us the Mafia and the Kennedys, the war on drugs gave us the Crips and the Bloods. Dated, yes. Incorrect? Methinks not.
    The major obstacle to ameliorating this problem is not public understanding but rather the immense vested interests of the drug warriors.
     

  • Global use isn’t really reflective of the effects of US policies, especially since many countries don’t approach US enforcement levels even if they have prohibitions. The amount of drug use in the US has been fairly stable since 2002, but there were very significant reductions in levels of Cocaine and marijuana use from 1982 to 1998 (see tables 2 and 3). In particular, cocaine use went down by 66% among adults. In other words, in this case prohibition worked. That doesn’t mean it justified the cost, but the primary objective was actually achieved.

    • Did prohibition work or did users move on to another drug(s)?

    • What was the level of drug use in the US prior to Cocaine and Marijuana being classified as illegal substances?
       
      We’re celebrating a victory over reduction in use of a drugs that anyone could once grow and consume without government interference.  The argument that we have to to preserve society doesn’t wash.
       

    • Bruce – Those reporting use of any illicit drugs in the last 30 days was down 50% in the same time frame (Table 1), so it seems some moved to other drugs, but the majority of the drop was due to less people taking drugs.

      Looker – I’m not arguing that the war on drugs was a net positive or is being pursued correctly. The primary argument of the post was that the worldwide increase of drug use over a decade is evidence that the war on drugs failed. The flip side of this argument would be that a significant reduction in drug use would then be evidence that it succeeded, and that is what happened in the US.