Associated Press: Drug War a Disastrous Failure

| by Reason Foundation

The Associated Press distributed a story last week that takes a remarkably skeptical view of the war on drugs. A few highlights:

After 40 years, the United States' war on drugs has cost $1 trillion and hundreds of thousands of lives, and for what? Drug use is rampant and violence even more brutal and widespread....

Even U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske concedes the strategy hasn't worked.

"In the grand scheme, it has not been successful," Kerlikowske told The Associated Press. "Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified."...

[Richard Nixon's] first drug-fighting budget was $100 million. Now it's $15.1 billion, 31 times Nixon's amount even when adjusted for inflation.

Using Freedom of Information Act requests, archival records, federal budgets and dozens of interviews with leaders and analysts, the AP tracked where that money went, and found that the United States repeatedly increased budgets for programs that did little to stop the flow of drugs. In 40 years, taxpayers spent more than:

_ $20 billion to fight the drug gangs in their home countries. In Colombia, for example, the United States spent more than $6 billion, while coca cultivation increased and trafficking moved to Mexico — and the violence along with it. 

_ $33 billion in marketing "Just Say No"-style messages to America's youth and other prevention programs. High school students report the same rates of illegal drug use as they did in 1970, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says drug overdoses have "risen steadily" since the early 1970s to more than 20,000 last year.

  _ $49 billion for law enforcement along America's borders to cut off the flow of illegal drugs. This year, 25 million Americans will snort, swallow, inject and smoke illicit drugs, about 10 million more than in 1970, with the bulk of those drugs imported from Mexico.

_ $121 billion to arrest more than 37 million nonviolent drug offenders, about 10 million of them for possession of marijuana. Studies show that jail time tends to increase drug abuse.

  _ $450 billion to lock those people up in federal prisons alone. Last year, half of all federal prisoners in the U.S. were serving sentences for drug offenses....

Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron says the only sure thing taxpayers get for more spending on police and soldiers is more homicides.

"Current policy is not having an effect of reducing drug use," Miron said, "but it's costing the public a fortune."...

"For every drug dealer you put in jail or kill, there's a line up to replace him because the money is just so good," says Walter McCay, who heads the non-profit Center for Professional Police Certification in Mexico City.

McCay is one of the 13,000 members of Medford, Mass.-based Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of cops, judges, prosecutors, prison wardens and others who want to legalize and regulate all drugs.

A decade ago, no politician who wanted to keep his job would breathe a word about legalization, but a consensus is growing across the country that at least marijuana will someday be regulated and sold like tobacco and alcohol.

"I have been the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance for ten years," says Tony Newman, "and this is one of the hardest hitting indictments against the drug war I've ever seen." I've been covering the war on drugs for more than 20 years, and I can't recall seeing a more skeptical treatment of current policy in a news story from a mainstream media outlet.

Still, the story implicitly favors a timid and probably inconsequential solution: shifting anti-drug money from interdiction and enforcement to "prevention and treatment." The fact that Kerlikowske and the president who appointed him (an admitted drug user, as A.P. notes) officially favor such a shift speaks volumes about its limitations.

As I've argued before, moving money around in the anti-drug budget does not necessarily produce a more effective, or even less repressive, policy. The only effective way to address the prohibition-related problems highlighted by the article—such as corruption, black-market violence, and diversion of law enforcement resources—is by repealing prohibition.